Part, the first — Roots & Rituals
Time will pass away
Time will guard our secret
I’ll return again
To fight another day
I’d have to be a warrior
A slave I couldn’t be
A soldier and a conqueror
Fighting to be free
—Warrior, Wishbone Ash, 1972
Wandering the candlelit crypt of Rochester Cathedral, choristers singing Te Deum in the chapel above. Tapers burning low and hot wax sliding slowly toward a polished casket. It is hard to grasp that I am standing at a pivot-point, not only in the history of the British Isles but also of the world. For in the wake of St Augustine’s landing in AD 597 and the subsequent conversion of the Cantware of Kent to Christianity, the men who once worshipped in this vaulted chamber developed notions and ideas that have in-turn become concepts and principles which define whole civilizations, their laws and societal constitutions, the rights of individuals and communal freedom. Forms of liberty that mankind have strived and died defending for over a millennia.
So it is no surprise that here in the reflective flicker of warm orange flame, one’s mind fills with ghostly images of Housecarls and shield walls, Senlac hill and bloodied axes, tonsured monks with quills poised, and the swan-like necks of Saxon princesses. For this is where the 12th Century Textus Roffensus originates, recording King Aethelbert of Kent’s First Code of English law, itself dating from the sixth century. Princely pronouncements coterminous with the consecration of the Cathedral, the second oldest in Britain, standing on the banks of the Medwig, now the River Medway.
And that great waterway, crossed then, as now, by the Roman Watling Street, is and was, a transit point for the transmission of the English language, nation-state democracy and multi-form Christianity to the four corners of the globe. A language carried by Alba’s seed, along with its folkways and customs, by means of sword and song to many distant lands. Where more often than not it has germinated, taken root and flourished in sometimes inhospitable environments. Emerging in strummed sonnets sung with Irish, Welsh and Scottish accents from the Appalachians of America to the Drakensberg in South Africa and from the snowy hilltops of Gandamak in Afghanistan to the Patagonian pampus in Argentina. Music celebrating the deeds of heroes and heroines like the Irish Finn Mac Cool, Amairgen and Grainne; the Welsh Taliesin, Pryderi Fab Pwll and Branwen; the Scottish Fionn, Bridei and Cruithu; and the English Byrthnoth, Hereward and Wayland the Smithy.
The Textus Roffensis being so vitally important because it is the first record of the Old English dialect. Potentially the first vernacular alphabet after Greek and Latin, and now the modern world’s lingua franca. A language studied by millions of school children from Kiruna in Sweden to Punta Arenas on the straits of Magellan. An essential medium for anyone who seeks to communicate in the international sphere. Including aspirant musicians who want to reach the largest possible audience. To have their songs covered by pub band wannabees from Wichita to Wuhan. To have their message and their music promulgated via the internet, TV, radio and social media.
So how did this Germanic tongue, derived from an Indo-European root, and initially isolated to a small fog bound island off the coast of Europe, become so viral? Well, perhaps the Textus provides some clues because besides representing a vital stage in the formal development of a language and nation-building, the Textus is also the first rung on a historical ladder that climbs steadily towards the establishment of English criminal jurisprudence and the famous Magna Carta of 1215. Itself, a forerunner to the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, the American Declaration of Independence of 1775 and the American Constitution of 1789. Therefore, the philological and political significance of the Textus cannot be ignored, especially because it escaped the limitations of the Anglo-phone world, with a similar Code being adopted by the Council of Paris, led by Aethelbert’s cousin-by-marriage in 617, and the subsequent adoption of its key principles across great swathes of the globe under the aegis of what was later to become the British Empire.
So here we have one of the cornerstones of the West, a scroll, a parchment manuscript, that captures the first stammerings of a language whose syntax and nuance carries the essence of ideals that make us nominally free today. And it is ironic that this embryonic form of democracy, suckling at the maternal nipple of English Christianity, was born in the shadow of the “Inga stone” which ancient tradition associates with Hengist and Horsa, the Woden worshipping warlords of the wild hunt who bore down on their enemies brandishing their White Horse banner. Now a symbol of the County of Kent. Mythic men who left their mark in the cultic place-names of Wendesbury, Wensley, Wansdyke and Woodnesborough. Saxon heroes contemporaneous with those in the famous Beowulf poem:
Lo, praise the prowess of people kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honour the athelings won!
—Beowulf (anonymous translator)
Or is it really by mere chance or circumstance? All the poetry of Old Englisc is of the same alliterative verse form as Old High German which lends itself so perfectly to oral performance. Each imbued with certain values has can be seen in the Old High German epic the Hildebrandslied which opens with a meeting between two opposing warriors:
I heard tell
that warriors met…in single combat
Hildebrand and Hadubrand… between two armies
son and father… prepared their armour
made ready their battle garments… girded on their swords
the warriors, over their ringmail… when they rode into battle
Copies of the ancient Hildebrandslied document, transcribed from the much older oral tradition in a mix of Old Saxon and Old Bavarian dialects, is now held in the Bibliothek in Kassel after being looted by American soldiers at the end of World War Two. The first portion of the manuscript, thought to have been made at the monastery of Fulda, was written by hand in the Carolingian miniscule but bears all the hallmarks of Old English influence, especially the use of the wynn-rune for “w”. The theme of the poem, essentially a duel between father and son, is one oft repeated in the northern tradition, coming down to us in numerous forms. Some other examples being: the 13th century Old Norse Thiorekssaga; the 14th century Old Norse Asmundar Saga Kappabana; the Faroesballad Spanjolska; and book VII of the 13th century Gesta Danorum. With similar themes emerging in Irish medieval literature with the hero Cu Chulainn killing his son Canlai and in the Rus oral epic poem Rylina, told in the Stariny style of the folk-saga, where Ilya Muromets brutalizes his son Podsokolnik. All very strong indicators of parallel cultures over-lapping and intermingling within tribes and kingdoms stretching from Offa’s Dyke to the Golden cupolas of St Sophia’s in Novgorod.
Then there is also the early 9th century German epic the Heliand, commissioned by either Louis the Pious (814 – 840) or Louis the German (806 – 876). Running to around 6000 lines and thought to have been composed by someone familiar with the works of Caedmon (died 680) who wrote Caedmon’s Hymn one of the oldest alliterative poems in a Germanic rooted language and the first known English poet:
Now we must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders,
as he first created the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the Middle Earth,
the lands of men, the almighty God
The Heliand’s anonymous originator also indicating knowledge of the Venerable Bede (672/3 – 735), the monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) and Rabanus Maurus (c. 780 – 856), author of the Encyclopaedia de Rerum Naturis (On the Nature of Things) who also happened to have been ordained the Deacon of Fulda in Hesse, where the Hildenbrandslied was copied. The purpose of the Heliand manuscript, various copies of which are now held in the British Library, The Vatican and the Bayerische Straatsbibliothek in Munich, is thought to have been to bring Christianity to the pagan Saxons who had engaged in a protracted thirty three year war under their leader Widukind against the Franks led by Charlemagne. But it was not only language, literary tradition and the gradual encroachment of Christianity that brought these people together. There was also the bonding through blood and political alliances. The English royal princess Eadgyth (910 – 946), the granddaughter of Alfred the Great (849 – 899), daughter of Edward the Elder (870 – 924) and sister of Athelstan (895 – 939) married Otto (912 – 973), the German Holy Roman Emperor and recent forensic DNA samples attest to the fact that she was buried beside her husband in Magdeburg cathedral. One can easily imagine the type of songs that were sung to celebrate their nuptials.
The role of the scribes and the clerics in driving Western learning forward cannot be understated. Though it must be said, their zealous adherence to the holy mother church led to a distorted and biased interpretation of the pre-Christian nature religions that had been adhered to by Europeans for centuries prior to the coming of the new faith. Working by blazing braziers in cold stone chambers in their monastic communes, poets like Caedmon, who was writing around 670 AD at the Abbey at Whitby, and Widsith who was composing between 650 – 700 AD, were wedded to this alliterative form and tradition of composition. A style, although pre-Christian in reality, is now intrinsically associated with Christian centres of learning, where they were first written down, the most prominent of which in England were at York and Canterbury. With the Venerable Bede producing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the first half of the eighth century in the Northumbrian north, and Alcuin (735 – 804) establishing a school in the court of Charlemagne around 781. Indeed, a further example of pagan themes being copied by earnest clerics, other than the much poured over Beowulf manuscript, is Widsith’s scop who in the character “the far traveller” describes his visits to Germanic kings and tells tales of their generosity, heroic deeds and the legends of their ancestors. So perhaps it is not so difficult to see how cultural transmission took place in so fertile a landscape. For the ancient sarsen megalith overlooking Bluebell Hill in Kent, only a stone throw from Rochester cathedral and allegedly the burial marker for Horsa and sacred to the religious fraternity of today’s Odinic Rite, is located directly adjacent to the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury, made famous by the Middle-English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), whose characters are the:
longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To fern halwes, couth in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires end
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende…
So the continuity is maintained from Aethelbert’s reign down the centuries. With stead-fast Christians finding their way “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” through the leafy lanes of the Kentish countryside. Singing and making merry along their route, following in the footsteps of their pagan forebears Hengist and Horsa, who in turn claimed descent from their father Whitgils, the son of Witta, the son of Wecta, who sprang from the loins of Woden himself. A noble race of many provinces of Jutes, Angles and Saxons who inhabited the North Sea coast from Denmark to the mouth of the River Meuse. A people who took to their boats has the coastline of the Low Countries changed under pressure from rising sea levels impacting their homes in and around the Elbe, Weser, Ijssel, Rhine and Scheldt. Communities who worshipped Tiw, god of war, Thunor, god of thunder, Eostre, goddess of fertility, Frigg, goddess of love and Hel, goddess of death.
And it is these people, Our people, who, along with their Celtic, Norse, Pictish, Gaelic, Gallic and Germanic counterparts spawned a vast literary and troubadour tradition. Chanting in English, Norse, Gaelic, Germanic and other Brythonic tongues. A form of entertainment and story-telling that has flourished for centuries. Transmitted through time by many means, such as the Mead Halls in the walled burghs of Mercia and Wessex and later through the Middle High German Mittelhochdeutsche Blutezeit (1170 – 1230) a golden age for German literature when Minnesangers writing poems and songs about courtly love in the style of the Provencal troubadours came to the fore. Some examples being Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170 – c. 1230) who wrote Unter de Linden, Elegie and the Palastinalied; Heinrich von Veldeke (1150 – 1184) who wrote the Eneas Romance around 1175; Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1160/80 – c. 1220) who wrote Parzival in stanzas of rhyming couplets based on 12th century poet and trouvere Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval – Le Conte du Graal, who in his, turn took his influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095 – 1135) a British cleric and Robert Wace, a Norman poet (c. 1110 – 1174) who was Canon of Bayeaux; Harmann von Aue (c. 1160/70 – c. 1210/20) who wrote Erec (1191/2) and Iwein (1203); Albrecht von Johansdorf (c. 1180 – c. 1290) famous for writing recruitment songs for the Third Crusade; Bernger von Horheim famous for his Lugenlied (lying) love songs; and Blondel of Nesle (c. 1155 – 1202) a minnesinger whose legend is interwoven with the captivity of Richard the Lionheart by Duke Leopold of Austria at Durnstein; Gottfried von Srassburg (died 1210), author of the Middle High German courtly romance Tristan, an adaption of the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult that was an inspiration for Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) when he devised his opera Tristan und Isolde (1865); Heinrich von Morungen (died 1220 – 1222) who writes of the shining sun, moon, stars, gold, jewels and mirrors; Johannes Hadlaub (1300 – 1340) responsible for fifty one songs in the Codex Manesse, a Liederhandschrift, or book of poems and poetry, compiled circa 1340; the sublime Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), sometimes referred to as the Sibyl of the Rhine, writer, composer and Christian mystic, who wrote the Ordo Virtutum (1151) which included O frondens Virga and her Symphonia armoniae celestum revelationum; and the much later Oswald von Wolkenstein (1367/77 – 1445) a member of the ferociously anti-Ottoman, Order of the Dragon, who wrote the salacious Ain Graserin about a bathing maid and the frizzy hair between her legs.
Then of course there were the Mystery Plays (or Miracle Plays) by anonymous authors going by names like The Wakefield Master and the York Master. With titles such as The Fall of Lucifer, Judgement Day, Along with Noah, and The Killing of Abel, acted out on the back of pageant wagons travelling the market towns of Ye Olde England. Replicated by the Cornish Ordinalia tradition in the English West Country. With similar performances taking place all over France, Flanders and St Clements in Metz.
These songs, plays and poems enriching an already blooming vocabulary which was further explored in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, written somewhere between 1370 and 1390, itself contemporaneous with the Peasants Revolt led by Wat Tyler, himself from Kent, and the later “Captain of Kent” Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450. With Langland’s poem containing the first ever reference to the outlaw tradition that was to coalesce in a multitude of poems and songs to form the legend of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. While the Pearl poet’s Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, one of the best known Arthurian and chivalric stories, was intended to be inspirational:
Sir Gawain, good was he, pure as refined gold,
Void of villainy, virtue did him enfold, and grace –
So the Pentangle new
Hath on his shield a place,
As knight of heart most true,
Fairest of form and face.
—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Jessie L. Weston (1999)
An England, as one reviewer said of Robert Winder’s book about English identity, The Last Wolf (2017), “seen through the prism of wool, water and wheat”. And it is my contention that it is from within this long tradition of oral rendition that many of today’s musicians operate. Modern day troubadours (or trobairitz if women) carrying both the news and their romantic yarns far and wide. The term troubadour itself, as referred to above, taken from the Provencal or Occitan trobador meaning composer, with the Late Latin variant tropare, implying “to invent a poem.” With some of the most familiar Medieval and Elizabethan folk songs sung by troubadours, themselves evolving out of even far earlier traditions, defining the style, content and tempo of those that followed. Examples would be the familiar tune “Greensleeves,” a folk song with many alternate versions, the most dominant of which is in the Spanish romanesca or passamezzo antico style which was first written down by Richard Jones in 1580. The lyrics some claim to be a reference to a woman of low morals, with the Chaucerian scholar Nevill Coghill (1899 -1980) indicating that green was associated with someone “light in love” and the colour representing the grass stains on a dress after fornication in the fields. William Shakespeare referencing the song in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597): “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves”. Another popular song being the somewhat sexual in content, The Elfin Knight:
The Elfin knight sits on yon hill
Blaw, blaw, wind blaw
He blows his horn both lewd and shrill
The wind hath blown my plaid away
With the refrain:
Sober and grave grows merry in time
Every rose grows merry with time
There’s never a rose grows fairer with time
Yesterday holds memories in time
(First written down between 1600-1650)
Which in turn influenced the perennially famous Scarborough Fair, a song thought to be based on a much older tune about the Black Death and the search for a husband or a wife in a distant town, with its Middle English Dorian mode:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine
The song cycle performing both then and now what Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) in his De vulgari eloquentia (1302) describes as fictio rethorica musicaque poita (invention established through rhetoric and music). A theme I will revisit later when I reference the 1960’s folk music of Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman). And although the etymology of the name troubadour is generally acknowledged by most scholars (alongside the expression chantaire — “singer”) to define its exponents, the origins of the style and themes of the compositions themselves are hotly disputed among the wider academic community. With some claiming that it is influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux’s Marianist theology and pointing to the emphasis on spiritual and courtly love, as well as the “matronage” aspects of the songs. Whereas others highlight the gender-relation themes which they postulate to be surviving examples of pre-Christian sexual-mores from the Celtic, Germanic and Pictish peoples. While yet other experts assert that the feudal, social, folklore and ritual elements are the vestigial reminders of the Celtic Beltane or the festive dances of women welcoming the spring.
Indeed, the wonders of nature, its fecundity and beauty, are a central tenet of all folk music, especially the wassailing tradition, which greatly influenced the development of many musical styles and cross fertilized the courtly and religious traditions with a more earthy rural form. The expression wassailing itself coming from the old Anglo-Saxon greeting “be thou hale” or “to be in good health”. Which later, through people of predominantly Danish descent, living side by side with the broader English population, became “was hail!”, a drinking term eagerly adopted by the indigenous people and is now synonymous with Christmas. Traditionally the wassail being celebrated on the Twelfth Night on either the 5th or 6th January and was a reciprocal exchange between Lord and peasant:
We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
but we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before
With the Lord responding in good faith:
Love and joy come to you,
and to you, your wassail too;
and God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year.
This song and its refrain being reminiscent of the “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” carol dating back to the sixteenth century. Then, of course, there is the orchard-visiting wassail, particularly common in the West of England, in the counties of Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, where it has been sung since the Middle Ages, with its accompaniment of drinking and dancing to the health of the trees:
Here’s to these, old apple tree
that blooms well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three budded boys full,
an’ all under one tree.
The Somerset wassail going:
Old apple tree, old apple tree;
we’ve come to wassail thee;
to bear and bow apples and how;
that full, caps full, three bushed bags full;
barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs
And the Gloucestershire equivalent:
Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,
our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
with the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee
With such nature worshipping rites often accompanied with others like that of the Mari Lwyd tradition in Wales, coming in the form of a hobby horse and Punch & Judy style characters, moving from house to house, along with legends of the Jack in the Green, the Green Man, tales of elves and fairies and black-faced Sweeps Festivals. All of which we see acted out in multifarious forms across the European continent. Britain, being particularly rich in local traditions, from Doon Hill in Scotland to Norwich in the Fens and Rochester in Kent to the giant Bica who was said to have walked the Cardigan Coast of Wales. Folklorists disputing the meaning of the various constituent elements comprising the rituals themselves but generally admitting that they are all part of pre-Christian seasonal activities of some sort. With Welsh poet Vernon Watkins (1906 – 1967) capturing the modern uncertainty about such matters perfectly in his Ballad of Mari Lwyd (1941):
Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari
a sacred thing through the night they carry.
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All are confused by a horse’s head.
And much as we might ponder the meaning and formulation of such works we should not overlook or underestimate what these effusions of emotion represent. The inherent psychology of the people that produce and receive them has art and entertainment. For their gestation reveals a great deal about us and who we are and what we think. Not just within the narrow span of a year or a decade but as we have seen over many centuries. Because as per Edmund Burke (1729 – 97):
A nation is not an idea only of local extent and individual momentary aggregation; but it is an idea of continuity;
which extends in time as well as numbers and in space. And this is a choice not only of one day, or one set of people,
not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a constitution made
by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers,
dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space
of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon
blind, unmeaning prejudices – for man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish; the multitude,
for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it,
as a species it always acts right.
A theory with which historians of the first half of the twentieth century like Carlton Hayes writing in 1937 would concur:
Man simply cannot live as the time-animal and the art-animal that he is, without history…
From anthropological studies it is obvious that the tribalism which is common among primitive people today
and which presumably flourished generally before the dawn of recorded history is a kind of nationalism.
Each tribe has normally a distinctive speech or dialect, a peculiar pattern of social organization and cultural
and religious observances, a special set of oral traditions and a peculiar manner of initiating its useful members
into the full life and lore of the tribe and inculcating in these a supreme loyalty to it.
An analysis reinforced by Louis Snyder in The Meaning of Nationalism (1954):
Nationalism is a condition of mind, feeling, or sentiment of a group of people living in a well-defined geographical area,
speaking a common language, possessing a literature in which the aspirations of the nation have been espoused,
being attached to common traditions, and in some cases having a common religion.
In the case of English and British nationalism, it is, as we have seen in the context of the textus in Rochester, closely associated with religious freedom and personal liberty. With the theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) advocating a form of political absolutism within the structure of what we today would recognise as a nation-state; the celebrated poet John Milton (1608 – 1674), famous for his epic Paradise Lost (1667) supporting a republican form of nationalism in his prose; John Locke (1632 – 1704) whose work at the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688) became a foundation stone of English nationalism within the all-pervasive Liberal framework of the 18th Century; and of course the Scotsman David Hume (1711 – 1776), empiricist, skeptic and natural philosopher with his groundbreaking Treatise on Human Nature (1739/40). With the great Liberal thinker John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) commenting:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling
which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight,
nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being
free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
To be continued…