The Vercelli Book

April 4, 2018

The Vercelli Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.800]
150 p.

Continuing our explorations of Old English poetry we come to the Vercelli Book, one of the four principal surviving sources for this literature. The Book itself, which resides in the northern Italian city of Vercelli, dates to the 10th century, and is an anthology consisting of a half-dozen poems and a collection of prose works, mostly homilies. It is the poetry that has our attention today.

We will look at the poems in the order in which they are presented in my edition; I assume they follow the same order in the original manuscript.

**

The longest poem is Andreas, at about 1700 lines. It tells a legendary tale about how St Andrew the Apostle rescued St Matthew and many others from prison in Mermedonia, the land of the cannibals. This is a legend new to me; it is based on a second-century tale, The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi, but our Anglo-Saxon poet has taken care to recast Andrew as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, who, though he does not himself wield a weapon, has all of the requisite virtues.

The story begins when St Matthew is captured, blinded, and thrown into prison in a city of flesh-eating madmen, whom the poet describes in grisly detail:

The people of that place, the tribes of terror,
Hungered for unholy food. They ate no bread,
Drank no water, but wolfed down human
Flesh and blood, the corpses of men,
An abominable feast. This was their custom:
They slaughtered strangers who came from afar,
Engorged themselves on their unwelcome guests.
Each foreigner found himself invited to the table,
And the inhabitants ate as many as they were able.
They satisfied their hunger in hideous ways.
First the fierce people would go for the eyes,
Gouging out the beautiful jewels of the head,
Stifling sight with their sharp spear-points.
[21-34]

God calls Andrew to rescue Matthew, and even, incognito, captains the ship which carries Andrew to the terrible city. There is a good deal of unexpected humour during this voyage as God asks Andrew a series of questions, as though he needed to know the answers, and Andrew in turn expresses astonishment at the incredible wisdom of his host. There is in this exchange a rather beautiful capsule expression of the Gospel:

Then Andrew answered the curious captain:
“Dearest of men, how is it possible
That you of all people have never heard
Of the Savior’s power, how the Ruler’s Son
Revealed himself, his grace and glory,
Throughout the world? He gave speech to the dumb,
Hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind.
He gladdened the spirits of the leprous and lame,
Those who were limb-locked, sinew-twisted,
Sick and tormented. He healed the suffering
While here on earth and woke the dead
With a holy word. This man of glory
Manifested his power by means of miracles,
Consecrating wine from water to everyone’s delight.
Likewise from two fish and five loaves,
He fed the multitudes, five thousand strong.
They had come from far, weary and woeful
From their long journey, to enjoy their feast
With pleasant food in the open fields.
Now, my dear friend, you can hear how the Healer,
The Guardian of glory, has offered us his love
Through all of his holy words and works.
His teaching has brought us untold joy.
He has invited us home to the gates of heaven
And the exultation of angels, where we may live
In his fond embrace forever, even after death,
Alive in the dwelling place of the Lord.”
[568-94]

At last Andrew, “God’s adamant warrior”, arrives in Mermedonia. As he disembarks God declares that he will suffer greatly, as Christ did, but that great good will result. A truer prophecy could not have been spoken, for although he succeeds in setting free St Matthew and all the other prisoners, he is himself captured and his bone-house is subjected to all manner of abuse, with even his brain-house bashed and bloodied without mercy. Flowers bloom where his blood splashes on the ground:

Then the holy warrior, the beloved soldier,
Looked back at the long track of his tears,
As his God and Glory-king had commanded,
And saw beautiful, bright groves, blooming
With flowers everywhere his blood had fallen.
His gore had transformed the dead land
Into God’s green grandeur, a garden of light.
[1492-97]

When at last Andrew opens his word-hoard and calls to God for assistance, he is inspired to command water to spring forth from a marble pillar standing nearby. A great flood results, and the people of Mermedonia, seeing the error of their ways, repent, whereupon Andrew stops the flood and restores to life those who had drowned. The Mermedonians build a church and are given a bishop. The poem ends as Andrew departs, leaving them in peace as they sing praise to God:

“There is only one God, our holy Father,
The Lord and Creator of all living things,
Almighty, everlasting. His right and rule,
His promise and power, are glorious and blessed
All over middle-earth. His holy splendor
Makes bright each quickening creature,
Each shining star, each shimmering angel.
We bask in his living light and realize glory
In his holy radiance for ever and ever.
He is the Lord of lords, the King of kings.”
[1770-9]

This is quite a delightful poem, full of lurid incident and imaginative detail. It is, by a good margin, the most macabre story about the Apostles known to me (which is saying something).

*

Among the shorter poems in the Vercelli book is The Fates of the Apostles, a brief (150 line) work relating what happened to each of the twelve Apostles after Christ’s Ascension. At the conclusion of his survey, the poet addresses the reader directly in moving terms:

Now I pray that the person who has read this poem
And finds these words spiritually sustaining
Should humbly pray to this holy host
To grant me aid, shield me from sin,
Support me in my faith, and send me mercy.
I will need kind friends, caring and compassionate,
When I must travel the long, last road
Into that unknown and wondrous land,
Leaving my body behind, a bag of dust,
An armful of earth, a feast for worms.
[104-12]

He then proceeds to pose a riddle which, when solved, will reveal his name. Riddling is a charming tradition in Anglo-Saxon verse, and we’ll see much more of it before we’re through.

*

Next is another short (190 lines), but not simple, poem called Soul and Body, in which two souls return to earth to speak to their decaying bodies.

First comes a damned soul, doomed, it seems, for a certain term to walk the night, and taking the opportunity to unburden itself of the hatred and contempt it bears toward its body:

“You cruel, bloody clod, what have you done?
Why did you torment me, filth of flesh,
Wasting world-rot, food for worms,
Effigy of earth?” [18-21]

If a healthy human being is one in which soul and body are in harmony, this wicked soul is profoundly dissonant. It considers its body to be its great antagonist, and even blames the body for having caused its damnation:

“You tied me to torments
In hell’s dark home, made me a slave,
I lived inside you, encompassed by flesh,
Trapped in my torment, your sinful desires,
Your lusty pleasures. I couldn’t escape.” [37-41]

This soul knows that its body, though now in a state of dissolution, will be reunited to it on the day of Judgment, an event it anticipates with no relish:

“What will you say to God on Doomsday?
You will have to pay for each sin separately,
With each small joint in your hand or limb —
A severe judgment from a stern judge.
But what are we going to do together?
In the end we will endure the multitude of miseries,
The gathering of griefs, you allotted for us earlier.” (108-15)

Notice that even here the soul is dissociated from its own true nature; as far as it is concerned, it is the body that will be judged on the last day! The body, of course, cannot respond to this abuse. It is dead:

A corpse cannot speak.
Its head is split open, its hands torn apart,
Dismembered in the dust. Its jaw is gaping,
Its palate cracked, its throat ripped out,
Its sinews sucked away, its neck gnawed apart,
Its gums shredded into a handful of dust.
Savage worms now ravage its ribs,
Drink down the corpse, thirsty for blood.
Its tongue ripped into ten pieces,
A delightful feast for the little devourers,
So it cannot speak to the soul, trade talk
With the wretched spirit. The name of the worm
is Ravenous Greedy-Mouth, whose hard jaws
Are sharp as needles. It is the first visitor
To desire the grave, crunching through ground.
It rips up the tongue, bores through the teeth,
Eats down through the eyes into the head,
Inviting the other gobblers to a great feast,
When the wretched body has cooled down
That once wore clothes against the cold.
Then it becomes the feast for worms,
Cold carrion, a banquet for maggots.
Wise men should remember this. (l.123-45)

Then, in the poem’s second half, a blessed soul visits its body, its “dearest friend, beloved companion”. Here, too, the soul marks its body’s part in shaping its eternal destiny, but in a happy way:

Alas, my lord, if only
I could lead you away to see the angels
And the splendor of heaven, as you appointed for me
Through your good deeds. You fasted here,
Filling me up with the body of God,
Quenching my thirst with the soul’s drink. (158-63)

This body too is decaying in the grave, but the soul has hope:

I mourn for you here, dearest of men,
For a body turned into a banquet for worms,
But God’s will was always that your share
Should be this hateful home, this loathsome grave.
But I tell you truly: Do not be troubled
By this earthly torment — we will be united again
Gathered together for God’s judgment
On Doomsday. Then we shall enjoy together,
A precious pair, the honor and grace
You appointed for us while we were living,
And we will be exalted as one in heaven. (173-84)

Medieval views of the relationship between soul and body are sometimes caricatured as naively dualistic, with the body seen as a kind of prison from which the soul wishes to escape. There is some warrant for this in the tradition, but, then again, there is warrant for the opposite in the writings of, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who sees human nature as a profound and essential unity of soul and body. It is hazardous to generalize about a thousand years of history. This poem might seem to be playing into the dualistic framework, especially in the first half, which definitely presents the soul and body as being in an antagonistic relationship, with the body being basically evil — even a source of moral evil. But the poem’s second half presents the two as “beloved companions”, meant for one another and destined to be reunited, and this is clearly the view we are meant to favour. Disharmony in our nature is the fruit of sin, and is healed by salvation. Dualism can never really sit comfortably with the dogma of the resurrection of the body.

The poem will reappear later, in the Exeter Book, shorn of its happy soul.

**

The shortest poem in the Vercelli Book is a little fragment, On Human Deceit. At just 50 lines, there is not much to it. The poet considers the many ways in which men sin and harm both themselves and others. It is a fragment, and it reads that way.

**

Listen! I will speak of the best of dreams,
The sweetest vision that crossed my sleep
In the middle of the night when speech-bearers
Lay in silent rest. (1-4)

The Dream of the Rood is only about 160 lines long, but it is a powerful and beautiful poem that has been justly celebrated as one of the masterpieces of Old English poetry, and even of medieval literature as a whole.

In it, the poet has a vision of the cross on which Christ died, and the cross speaks to him, telling its story: how it was cut down, formed into a cross, and made an instrument of torture and execution. And then, one day, it was the Son of God who approached:

The warrior, our young Savior, stripped himself
Before the battle with a keen heart and firm purpose,
Climbed up on the cross, the tree of shame,
Bold in the eyes of many, to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the Hero embraced me
But dared not bow down to earth — I had to stand fast.
A rood was I raised — I raised the mighty King,
Lord of the heavens. I dared not bend down. (l.42-9)

I love the portrayal of Christ here as a warrior, preparing for battle. Scripture is clear that he went to his death willingly, and here the poet transmutes that willingness into positive eagerness. Mounting the cross, Christ died:

I saw the Lord of hosts stretch out his arms
In terrible suffering. Night-shadows slid down,
Covering in darkness the corpse of the Lord,
Which was bathed in radiance. The dark deepened
Under the clouds. All creation wept,
Lamenting the Lord’s death: Christ was on the cross. (56-61)

His friends soon came to take his body down, treating it with the greatest reverence. But the cross, neglected or hated, was taken down and thrown into a pit, covered with earth, until one day, many years later (and making a nice connection with Elene, below), the friends of Christ recovered it, adorning it with jewels. The cross then became a sign of love and hope, a miraculous transformation:

The Son of God suffered on my for awhile —
Now I rise up high in heaven, a tower of glory,
And I can heal any man who holds me in awe.
Long ago I become hateful to man, hardest of woes,
A terrible torturer. Then I was transformed.
Now I offer the true way of life to speech-bearers,
A road for the righteous. The Lord of glory,
The Guardian of heaven, has honored me
Above all trees, just as he also honored
His mother Mary above all women.
(ll.93-103)

At the poem’s conclusion, the cross instructs the poet to convey his story to all, teaching them that Christ will return one day to judge all souls.

Then the poet awakes:

“Now my life’s great hope is to see again
Christ’s cross, that tree of victory,
And honor it more keenly than other men.
The cross is my hope and my protection.”
(ll.134-7)

For me, this is the most touching and beautiful poem in the batch, and by a wide margin. Dream visions are not uncommon in Old English poetry — nor in the later English tradition neither — but this remains, I think, among the best.

**

Elene is the second longest poem in the Vercelli Book, at about 1300 lines. It tells the story of St Helena, mother of Constantine, and her discovery of the True Cross. This story is well-known, but the poet has a few surprises for us.

The poem opens with an account of Constantine’s vision of the cross before the Battle of Milvian Bridge and his subsequent conversion. (The poet says, wrongly, that he was immediately baptized.) He then sends his mother to Jerusalem to search for the long lost cross of the Savior.

From that day on, the story of Christ
And the sign of the Cross, the sacred rood,
Resided in Constantine’s heart, sustaining
His spirit, so that he ordered his mother Helena
To journey abroad with a band of soldiers
To the land of the Jews to seek out the cross,
The tree of glory, the gallows of God,
And see if the holy cross might be hidden
In an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.

In Jerusalem is a young Jewish man, named Judas, whose family has for generations passed down secret knowledge of the location of the buried cross, keeping this knowledge hidden lest it give aid and comfort to Christians. This section of the poem makes for uncomfortable reading as the poet laboriously berates the Jews for their blindness, ignorance, and foolishness in rejecting Christ and the salvation he brought. It is natural enough that he, a Christian, should think those Jews who rejected Christ to be in error, and, as subsequent developments in the poem make clear, he does not believe that Jews are, as a people, intrinsically inferior to Christians, but he does express his anti-Judaism far more forcefully than we would.

You spit in the face of the Savior and Son,
Who could wash your eyes clean of blindness
With the sacred spittle and heal your hearts,
Saving you from the darkness of devils
And their fiery filth. You condemned to die
The Lord himself who created life
And conquered death — who raised up the patriarchs
From their mouldering graves, their grim fates.
In your blindness you traded light for darkness,
Truth for lies, mercy for malice.
You played deadly games with perjury,
So now you are sentenced to Satan’s realm,
Where no one will hear your unholy words
Or care to comfort your everlasting pain.
You condemned the life-giving power
Of the eternal Light. Now dwell in darkness
For all of your days. You live in delusion
And will die in desperation.
(304-21)

Helena is less scrupulous; she agrees wholeheartedly with the poet, and in a startling passage threatens the Jews of Jerusalem with a fiery conflagration unless they reveal the location of the True Cross. Judas is himself imprisoned for seven days before he relents and agrees to cooperate. A miracle occurs to guide him to the precise spot, and, to Helena’s great joy, three crosses are recovered from an ancient pit, and the cross of Christ is identified by its power to raise a dead man to life.

Then Judas lifted the third cross in joy,
The Redeemer’s rood, the tree of victory,
And the body rose up, intact and inspired
By the breath of life, its own lost soul.
Its limbs were alive, its eyes opened,
Its heart quickened by the power of the cross.
People raised their voices in praise of the Lord,
Honoring the Father and exalting the Son,
Lifting up their voices in a rapture of song:
“Glory be to God, who breathes life into being,
Shaping, sustaining all living creatures
Who celebrate the Creator without end.”
(893-904)

At this point the poet interjects a delightful vignette in which Satan, piping mad, protests this unauthorized theft of one of his souls:

That so-called Savior, Jesus of Nazareth,
Was a misguided boy born in Bethlehem
Of human flesh. He has mocked me, defiled me,
Made my existence an endless misery.
He has robbed me of riches, wasted my wealth,
Stolen my precious stash of souls.
He’s unrestrained. It’s unfair. It’s obscene.
His kingdom spreads like a pernicious plague
While mine is compromised all over creation.
(927-35)

News of the discovery spreads, to great rejoicing throughout the Christian world. Judas is himself baptized and made bishop. Shortly thereafter, at St Helena’s request, a search for the Holy Nails is begun, and another miracle leads to their discovery. One of the nails, in something of an anti-climax, is sent to Rome to be used as a bit for Constantine’s horse.

The poem closes with a charmingly personal passage in which the poet speaks about himself, his sins, his long labours over his poem, and his faith in the power of Christ’s cross.

Now that I have told this sacred story
About the rood, I am old and ready
To follow the final road. My flesh is frail,
My body failing. I have woven these words
Out of study and thought, winnowing them long
Into the night-watch. I too was blind
To the full truth about Christ’s cross
Till my mind was filled with the Lord’s light,
Revealing the depths of divine understanding.
My words and works were stained with sin,
And I was bound in misery, wound in woe,
Before God granted this feeble old man,
Whose mind was missing its careful clarity
Of younger days, a sacred gift, a share of grace.
He opened my heart and soul to the truth,
Easing my body and enlightening my mind,
Unlocking the ancient art of poetry,
Which I have practiced with great joy.
(1231-49)

There follows an acrostic section in which he spells out CYNEWULF, which may be his name, and the poem comes to a close with a vision of the final judgment.

*

The poems of the Vercelli Book, then, are a fairly heterogeneous lot. They are all Christian poems, of course, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture is evident in several. There are two saint’s lives, and two take as their centerpiece the crucifix of Christ, but otherwise the poems do not bear a strong resemblance to one another, and neither is it clear that they have been gathered together into one volume for any particular reason. All of the poems have something to recommend them. The greatest treasure is The Dream of the Rood.

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