Saturday, July 27, 2019

The faucon hath born my mak away

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.
He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.
In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.
And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.
And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.
By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.
And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
"Corpus Christi" wretyn theron.
- Corpus Christi Carol, c. 1500
I've been pondering this carol the last few days in connection with a long-term research project on the Grail story. Much as I dislike the concept of "doing a reading," I would venture to call the present project an exercise in a "liturgical" reading of the Grail story, particularly in its earliest form. I'll say more about the project later. In the meantime I wanted to point out some interesting features of this poem. No original content here, just some things which stood out to me, in no particular order.

A note on the word mak: this means of course (as can easily be inferred from context) "mate." It's from Old English mæc, an adjective which has the sense of "well-matched, fitting, agreeable."

The obvious allusions to the Grail story: the "orchard brown" and the "knight/His wowndes bledyng day and nyght" seems to be an allusion (or more, but not less than, an allusion) to the Fisher-king of the Grail story, in which the king's wounds have caused the land to become barren.

But of course the Corpus Christi reference at the climax of the poem takes us... Well, if not exactly beyond the Grail story (the Grail is first and foremost the vessel for the Host), certainly beyond the periphery of the legend and to its heart. There is probably also a ritual reference here--to Church architecture, and to the Corpus Christi plays and Holy Week services of medieval England. In The Stripping of the Altars, Dr. Eamon Duffy argues that the "Easter sepulchre and its accompanying ceremonial constitute something of an interpretative crux for any proper understanding of late medieval English religion" (31).

The Easter Sepulchre at Holcombe Burnell Church, dating to the 1500's (the same period as the carol). Note the central icon of Christ rising from the tomb.

A brief description of this sepulchre should make its connection to the Corpus Christi Carol clear. The sepulchre was a standard feature of medieval English church construction, consisting of an arched recess in the north wall of the chancel or sanctuary (that is, the space around the altar). In this,  a small wooden tomb was placed during Holy Week, and from Good Friday to Easter Sunday a consecrated Host would be laid in the sepulchre, signalling the presence of Christ in the Tomb. Duffy writes: "Expressing to the full as it did the late medieval sense of the pathos of the Passion, the sepulchre and its ceremonies were also the principal vehicle for the Easter proclamation of the Resurrection" (31).

On Easter morning, before Mass, the Host was removed from the sepulchre, and the church bells were triumphantly rung as clergy and faithful processed around the church singing the anthem Christus Resurgens:
Christus resurgens ex mortuis, jam non moritur, mors illi ultra non dominabitur.
Quod enim mortuus est peccato, mortuus est semel, quod autem vivit, vivit Deo, Alleluia.
Mortuus est enim propter delicta nostra: et resurrexit propter justificationem nostram,
Quod autem vivit, vivit Deo, Alleluia.
Dicant nunc Iudaei quomodo milites custodientes sepulcrum perdiderunt Regem.
Ad lapidis positionem quare non servabant petram iustitiae?
Aut sepultum reddant, aut resurgentem adorent, nobiscum dicentes: Alleluia.
Given the sheer medievalism of these proceedings--the great solemnity with which they must have been performed in even the simplest parish church, the absolute belief in the Real Presence, which would have made the laying of the Host in the church sepulchre a kind of imaginative re-participation in the events of Holy Week, it is not hard to see how greatly they might have impacted the imagination--both for this original composition and the understanding of the Grail myth (which uses the same liturgical pattern and focus on the Real Presence as the Mass, as I will discuss in a later post).

Our Lady St Mary, Norfolk, UK. The church is currently hung in "lenten array," with its altar and most of its images veiled.

Thus, the carol--which begins as a lament--moves through the lenten world which is withered and brown, into a hall hung in Lenten array. Within that hall there is a bed--it might be an altar--beside which a virgin sits weeping and upon which the body of a wounded lord lays, and the stone of the sepulchre is nigh at hand.

Currently Reading: The Stripping of the Altars, by Dr. Eamon Duffy
Current Audio Book: The Return of the King, JRR Tolkien

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