On the Virtues of: Blind Poets

Homer. John Milton. Jon Awdelay.

Assuredly, the early fifteenth-century blind chaplain Awdelay (or Audelay as his name is more commonly spelled today) is neither the household name that Homer is nor the astounding poet that Milton was, but he is seasonal. Moreover, he was seasonally thorough, writing a sequence of twenty-five carols for the season of the Nativity. God bless him. Even though his works appear in only one manuscript, Bodleian MS. Douce 32, this is one time, there is no question about authorship because Awdelay was not reticent about asserting his authorship whether in thanksgiving that his book was done (complete with his own little ‘Calloo Callay!’) or in his imprecations against anyone who would cut a leaf from his book.

No mon this book he take away,
Ny kutt owte noo leef, Y say forwhy,
For hit ys sacrelege, sirus, Y yow say!
Beth acursed in the dede truly!
Yef ye wil have any copi,
Askus leeve and ye shul have,
To pray for hym specialy
That hyt made your soules to save,
Jon the Blynde Awdelay. 1

As curses go, it’s hopelessly mild. One suspects the dear man’s heart was not truly in it. I prefer my imprecations with a soupçon of brimstone, endangerment of limbs at best, any hope of posterity at worst. Still, if Awdelay’s curse here against potential vandals of his book lacks all menace and malice, it is doubtless better so. After all, the man was offering up devotional poetry to guide the contemplative reader heavenward. To condemn a reader (even a leaf-thief) to hell would be entirely counterproductive.

I stumbled across Awdelay earlier this month when I was looking for Middle English devotional materials related to Childermass (the celebration of the Holy Innocents on December 28th). Selections from his carol sequence are simply too lovely not to share. The following is his third carol, De septem opera misericordie or seven works of mercy, and it is a most appropriate for a time of year which should not be about consumption, but rather the incarnating of mercy, hope, and blessing in one’s daily life. His opening promise, “Wele is him and wele schal be,” reminds me a little of Julian of Norwich’s assurance, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

So, take a minute. Turn off the endless playlists of music and the running internal commentary of all the things you have yet to do. Take a leaf from Jon Awdelay’s book-proverbially speaking, that is.  (For those who are unfamiliar with Middle English, one of the tricks is to read aloud. Your ear will likely catch what your eye does not.)

De septem opera misericordie

Wele is him and wele schal be,
         That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Fede the hungeré; the thirsté gif drenke;
Clothe the nakid, as Y youe say;
Vesid the pore in presun lyyng;
Beré the ded, now I thee pray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Herber the pore that goth be the way;
Teche the unwyse of thi conyng;
Do these dedis nyght and day,
Thi soule to heven hit wil thee bryng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

And ever have peté on the pore,
And part with him that God thee send;
Thou hast no nother tresoure,
Agayns the Day of Jugement —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

The pore schul be mad domusmen
Opon the ryche at Domysday;
Let se houe thai con onsware then,
Fore al here reverens, here ryal aray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

In hongyr, in thurst, in myschif — wellay! —
After here almus ay waytyng:
“Thay wold noght us vesete nyght ne day.”
Thus wil thai playn ham to Heven Kyng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé. 2

1. ed. Susanna Greer Fein, Poems and Carols (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302). Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, 2009.

2. ibid. If you need a little help with translation, visit the TEAMS site with the full carols.