For Good Friday, I wanted to share a fourteenth-century Middle English lyric that I have been working on recently (from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson poet. 175). It’s written in the voice of Christ in three stanzas and addresses the reader directly from the cross:
Abyde, gud men, & hald yhour pays
And here what god him-seluen says,
Hyngand on þe rode.
Man & woman þat bi me gase,
Luke vp to me & stynt þi pase,
For þe I sched my blode.
(Abide, good men, and hold your peace, / And hear what God himself says, / Hanging on the rood./ Man and woman that by me goes, / Look up to me and cease your pace, / For you I shed my blood.)
Christ accosts the man and woman who are on the point of passing by the cross and commands them to look up at him. This address constructs the reader as a viewer of the crucifixion, present at the scene, in the very manner encouraged by Nicholas Love in the popular fifteenth-century devotional text, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. In the meditation for the crucifixion, Love urges the reader to ‘take hede now diligently with alle þi herte’ and ‘make þe þere present in þi mynde, beholdyng alle þat shale be done a3eynus þi lorde Jesu’ (‘take heed diligently with all your heart’ and ‘make yourself present in your mind [at the crucifixion], beholding all that shall be done against your Lord Jesus’). The Rawlinson lyric is insistent that the reader/viewer do this as Christ commands:
Be-hald my body or þou gang,
And think opon my payns strang,
And styll als stane þou stand.
Biheld þi self þe soth, & se
How I am hynged here on þis tre
And nayled fute & hand.
(Behold my body before you go, / And think upon my pains strong, / And still as stone you stand. / Behold for yourself the truth, and see / How I am hung here on this tree, / And nailed foot and hand)
We are commanded to behold Christ’s body, think upon his pains, and behold for ourselves how he is nailed to the cross (although I think there is also a nice pun here on ‘biheld þi self’: behold ‘for yourself’ but also behold ‘your own self’ in Christ’s image, as the poet goes on to relate the crucifixion to the viewer’s own sins). The poet creates a moment of pause and reflection in our busy lives in which we are advised to stop, to stand as still as stone, and contemplate Christ’s agony.
Behald my heud, bi-hald my fete,
And of ma mysdedes luke þou lete;
Behald my grysely face
And of þi syns ask aleggance,
And in my mercy haue affyaunce
And þou sall get my grace.
(Behold my head, behold my feet, / And of more misdeeds look that you refrain, / Behold my grisly face / And of your sins ask for remission, / And in my mercy have faith, / And you shall get my grace)
In the final stanza, Christ exhorts the reader/viewer to behold his head and feet, and refrain from further misdeeds. Beholding his grisly face, we must ask for remission (‘aleggance’) from our sins and to have ‘affyaunce’ in God’s mercy. In Middle English ‘affiaunce‘ means confidence, assurance, faith, and trust. The second definition, however, includes ‘a solemn promise, a pledge of loyalty’. If we have faith in Christ’s mercy, therefore, he promises us his grace. It is a reciprocal relationship.
In the ‘Crucifixion play’ in the set of Biblical plays known as the York Mystery Cycle, Christ also directly addresses the spectators when he is raised up on the cross as part of the passion sequence. ‘Al men that walkis by waye or strete’, he begins, directly referring to the audience gathered in the streets of York to watch the staging of the Biblical story:
Byholdes myn heede, myn handis, and my feete,
And fully feele nowe, or ye fyne,
Yf any mournyng may be meete
Or myscheve mesured unto myne. (York Crucifixion, ll.255-258)
(Behold my head, my hands, and my feet, and fully feel now, before you leave, if there is any mourning that is equal or mischief that can be measured unto mine).
Here the playwright draws on Lamentations 1:12, a text that was recited in church on Good Friday and that asks ‘if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow’ (which I can’t help singing to Handel’s tune in the Messiah!) I like the use of the verb ‘feele‘ here as in Middle English it means to experience a physical sensation, to be aware through pain or a sense of touch, as well as to have an emotional empathy with, ‘to feel’ in the modern sense. Feeling is a bodily and tactile sensation as well as an emotional reaction.
Christ then asks God to forgive his persecutors (who nailed him to the cross) and, implicitly, the audience as whole, for whose sake he is there in the first place:
My Fadir, that alle bales may bete,
Forgiffis thes men that dois me pyne.
What thai wirke wotte thai noght.
Therfore, my Fadir, I crave
Latte nevere ther synnys be sought,
But see their saules to save. (259-64)
(My father, that all sorrows may cure, forgive these men that do me pain; what they work, they know not. Therefore, my Father, I crave, let their sins never be visited upon them, but save their souls).
[This passage draws on Luke 23:34 ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do]
One of the things that interests me about Middle English lyrics is their representation of time and space. In the York play, Christ’s speech from the cross takes place at a real moment in his life story, when he is hanging on the cross, moments before his death. In the play cycle, Christ’s life and passion are re-enacted for the contemporary viewer in real time and in the real streets of the city (both medieval and modern, as the plays are regularly performed today). At this moment in the play, Christ asks for forgiveness for mankind’s sins but this forgiveness is still to come as he has not yet died and been resurrected in the timescale of the cycle, thus fulfilling his ultimate plan.
In the lyric, I see time and space working a little differently. Christ’s speech from the cross is to some extent detached from the passion narrative. The voice speaking from the cross could just as easily be speaking from one of the ubiquitous devotional images of the crucifixion prevalent in the period, from personal devotional images such as Books of Hours (as pictured above) to communal images such as the crucifix on the rood screen in the parish church. Christ is still made present to the reader/viewer’s contemporary time, he is ‘hyngand’ (hanging) on the cross, but he speaks from a moment that is not so clearly tied to the historical narrative as it is in the York plays. He is able to speak about himself in the third person at the beginning of the lyric, ‘here what god hem-seluen says’ (hear what God himself says) and he is able to offer the promise of salvation immediately because his death and resurrection have already taken place. His forgiveness has already been granted and the lyric’s image of his crucified body is its guarantee. As long as we strive to sin no more and ask for Christ’s mercy, as the lyric instructs, his grace is assured.
In terms of space, the play and the lyric also operate somewhat differently. In the play the viewer is part of a communal audience, a group who are made to play the part of witnesses at the foot of cross in York-as-Calvary. The lyric could of course be read communally, and indeed it addresses a plural audience of ‘good men’ in its opening line, but the reference to ‘þi self’ speaks to the individual and the visualisation of Christ’s body takes place in the mind of the individual reader, it is not staged directly before them as in the play. Commanded to behold his body, I would suggest that the Rawlinson lyric creates a meditative space for the reader in which, standing ‘styll as stane’ (still as stone), we can contemplate the meaning of the events of Good Friday ‘diligently’, to return to Nicholas Love, ‘with alle þi herte.’
‘Abide, Ye Who Pass By’ from Carleton Brown, ed, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century (OUP, 1924, repr. 1957)
Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ed. Michael G. Sargent (Exeter Medieval Texts, 2004)
TEAMS edition of the York Plays: online here