Arresting moments in Church History, or the Pop Music/Liturgy Cross-Over Episode

My affection for prefaces, footnotes, and such apparatūs is no secret. I have celebrated the prefatory delights of the scholar Richard Furnivall elsewhere on this site, and while some might object that prefaces run a half-gamut from C to, oh say, E (paralytically dull to moderately dull), or maybe so far as F or G if we include prefaces to volumes like the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (and one takes into account the regrettably nationalistic drive behind such editorial projects as the MGH), I stand by the promise of a good preface just as I stand by my right to indulge in ridiculously long and over-abundant parentheticals.[1] Life, liberty, and the pursuit of parentheticals.

My reasons for loving prefaces are admittedly unscholarly and frivolous. If the MGH’s deeply earnest prefaces have never “sparked joy” in my soul, I take the failing and blame as my own. The truth is, I’d rather have the proverbial curtain drawn back on some backroom editorial battle than read ideologies of any sort. Give me a scholarly scuffle that might well likely come to fisticuffs if people were ever to put down their pipes, pens, or beersteins and actually march down the hall to so-and-so’s bleepity-bleep-bleep office.

In my world, the story of Wittenstein’s poker would be a great pick-up line.

Most recently, my frivolous nature was gratified by an anecdote I came across in G.L. Brook’s edition of The Harley Lyrics: The Middle English Lyrics of MS Harley 2253.  Brook provided what I call a flitillary. Flitillaries are those felicitous breadcrumbs, those literary lures that send my mind lighting about here and there, one thought to another until an afternoon has somehow vanished. Flitillaries are the sort of thing that prevent dissertations from being completed. They send distracted procrastinators chasing from one reference to another. One library to another. Sometimes one continent to another. Flitillaries are the black holes into which whole weeks (months if you have no self-control whatsoever) can be lost.

Brook provided me with my most recent flitillary in his discussion of the literary background for the lyrics found in Harley 2253. His object was to demonstrate that although the early fourteenth-century Harley manuscript is one of the earliest to contain secular lyrics, there is evidence that the tradition and enjoyment of such lyrics was well established by the time of the manuscript’s compilation. As proof of which, Brook recounts the following anecdote:

By the end of the twelfth century singing and dancing in churchyards had become a common practice. In his Gemma Ecclesiastica Girarldus Cambrensis [i.e. Gerald of Wales] tells a story of a parish priest in Worcestershire who had been kept awake all night by such singing and dancing, with the result that the next day, when he began the early morning service, instead of singing the usual ‘Dominus vobiscum’, he startled his congregation by substituting the refrain which had been ringing in his ears, ‘Swete lamman dhin are’, [Sweet lover, thy mercy….] So great was the scandal caused by this incident that Bishop Northall pronounced anathema upon any person who should ever again sing that song within the limits of his diocese.” [2]

Think of the organist on the Simpson’s breaking into Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-gadda-da-vida” only medieval. A perfect flitillary. I had originally hunkered down with this preface to get to know the tradition into which the Harley lyrics fit, that sort of thing. I came out needing to know the lyrics of a song that gave a twelfth-century bishop apoplexy.  Was it just that one of his priests was so desperately absent-minded or sleep-deprived that offended the bishop, or were the lyrics really scandalous? Inquiring minds want to know. Really badly.

Alas. This inquiring mind was doomed to disappointment. The Digital Index of Middle English verse led me only to various retellings of the irascible Gerald of Wales story, and a look through Gemma Ecclesiastica revealed that good old Gerald only quotes briefest bit of the vernacular English in his text. Yes, he does go on to translate a bit more of into Latin:  Dulcis amica, tuam poscit amator opem (Sweet friend, a lover asks for your aid…). Hardly enough to justify anathema. The more’s the pity. If any one can give me a lead on that Swete leman, I’d be deeply grateful.

One flitillary resigned, I’m sure I’ll come across another soon enough. In the meantime, to satisfy anyone’s desire for something a little racy. I direct you to a lyric from Harley 2253 where this whole adventure started in the first place. For the full poem, I refer you to the TEAMS Middle English site and Susanna Greer Fein’s edition and translation of the poem.  It’s worth the read. The fellow is a scoundrel and our young woman, who is ‘glistening as gold,’ will have none of it. It’s a pretty clear-sighted representation of late medieval sexual politics. Enjoy!

In a fryht as y con fare fremede
Y founde a wel feyr fenge to fere,
Heo glystnede ase gold when hit glemede
Nes ner gome so glady on gere.
Y wolde wyte in world who hire kenede
Þis burde bryht, ȝef hire wil were.
Heo me bed go my gates lest hire gremede;
Ne kepte heo non henyng here. [3]


“In a fryht as y con fare fremede…” BL Harley 2263, 66v

[1] If you’re wondering why that isn’t A to D or something more logically alphabetical, it’s because I recently learned that gamut was originally a musical term. This entry is written in the key of C natural.

[2] Brook, G.L., editor. The Harley Lyrics: The Middle English Lyrics of MS. Harley 2253. Manchester UP, 1948, pp. 4-5.

[3] Translation by Susanna Greer Fein (Editor) from the The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2  2014 (Robbins Digital Library)

In a wood as I, a stranger, did walk,
I found as companion a very fair prize;
She glistened as gold when it gleams;
Never was a creature so splendid in clothes.
I wished to know who in the world created her,
This bright maiden, if she were willing.
She told me to go away lest she grow angry;
She didn’t wish to hear any lewd proposal.


3 thoughts on “Arresting moments in Church History, or the Pop Music/Liturgy Cross-Over Episode

  1. Ah, prefaces. Sometimes the best part of a work – or, at least, an important part, such as in Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan” or Wordsworths’ 1798/1802 preface to the _Lyrical Ballads_!

    “Brevity is . . . wit.” William Shakespeare (via The Simpsons)

    Liked by 1 person

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