Friday, 24 June 2011

Who are the virtuous poor? Northumbrian shepherds?


Reading the medieval poem Piers Plowman by William Langland brings me up against the Christian conviction that it is easier for The Virtuous Poor to achieve salvation than the Rich.

Langland - at various times and with varying conviction - asserts that the simple, hard-working Christian plowman (i.e peasant) has a special 'pardon' from God which enables him to be saved; while the hazards of luxury corrupt many more powerful, wealthier and prestigious individual.


But who are the modern virtuous poor?

The first thing to be said is that there probably are not many of them - certainly no a large class of people analogous to the medieval peasants.

And the people who spring to mind as the modern poor are more akin to the assorted pleasure-seekers, loudmouths, brawlers, drunkards and fornicators depicted by Langland as the dregs of the Middle Ages.

The mainstream modern 'poor' are perhaps akin to the idle vagrants who Langland argued should be forced to work by the lash of starvation!

(And yet there are those who regard Christianity as soft!)


One group of people who strike me as akin to the virtuous poor are the Northumbrian shepherds who I used to see at country shows, involved in the competitions for best sheep.

My observations were superficial, but they were a quietly impressive bunch.

In the first place they were indeed quiet - men of few words, minimal movements, modest demeanor.

(When a shepherd won first prize for his sheep, this would be acknowledged by - at most - a barely-perceptible nod. Yet they might have put in many dozens of hours of work in preparing and displaying that sheep.)

And when a shepherd did speak it was brief and to the point; their rural dialects (from both sides of the border of England and Scotland) were intrinsically musical, their words lyrical: they were naturally poetic both in terms of what they said and how they said it.


Well, all this may be wishful thinking.

But recall that the best British folk poetry is to be found in the ballads from this region, and that the very first named English poet was a northern shepherd: Caedmon, as told by The Venerable Bede:


[Caedmon] was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house.

Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: 'Caedmon, sing me something.'

Then he answered and said: 'I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.'

Again he said, he who was speaking with him: 'Nevertheless, you must sing.'

Then he said: 'What must I sing?'

Said he: 'Sing to me of the first Creation.'

When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:


Nu we sculon herigean heofonrices weard
(Now we must praise the Protector of the heavenly kingdom)

meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc
(the might of the Measurer and His mind's purpose)

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
(the work of the Father of Glory, as He for each of the wonders)

ece drihten, or onstealde
(the eternal Lord, established a beginning)

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
(He shaped first for the sons of the Earth)

heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend
(heaven as a roof, the Holy Maker)

þa middangeard moncynnes weard
(then the Middle-World, mankind's Guardian)

ece drihten, æfter teode
(the eternal Lord, made afterwards)

firum foldan, frea ælmihtig
(solid ground for men, the almighty Lord)

Note: þ is called 'thorn' and ð is called 'eth' - and they are used for the various sounds made by modern 'th'.


Then he arose from that sleep, and all of those (songs) which he sang while sleeping he had fast in his memory, and he soon added in the same manner to those words many words of songs worthy of God.

Then in the morning he came to the town-reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him which gift did he bring, and he directly lead him to the abbess and made it known and declared to her.

Then she ordered all of the most learnèd men and scholars to assemble, and to those who were present commanded him to tell of that dream and sing that song, so that it might be determined by the judgement of all of them: what it was and whence it had come.

Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God himself a heavenly gift had been given.