#WhanThatAprilleDay16: Celebrating Middle English Poetry

Today is #WhanThatAprilleDay16 which means that we are joining @LeVostreGC in celebrating medieval texts! Here’s an excerpt from Geoffrey’s announcement over at ‘In the Middle’:

“On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’ … Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. All are welcome. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of ‘social media,’ and eke, yf ye kan do yt, yn the material plane of the ‘real worlde’ as wel.”
As it is the Easter Vacation here in Oxford, I won’t be able to hold my Chaucer Reading Group, so I thought that I would write a blogpost instead, about one of my current favourite Middle English devotional poems and the emotion that it generates. (I’m also going to indulge myself with a discussion of Tolkien at the end of the post!)
The Pietà and the Middle English Lyric
Harley 2846

From BL Harley 2846 (15thC Netherlands)

The image of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after the crucifixion is known as the pietà (or in Middle English, ‘pity’). The pietà was an extremely popular devotional image in the English parish church in the 15th century, appearing in stained glass (eg. Long Melford), wall paintings (eg. Hornton, Oxfordshire), and in statues and alabaster carvings. (The pietà most familiar to modern audiences is of course by Michaelangelo)

I have written about the importance of the pietà  and its devotional use, especially by women, in relation to Margery Kempe and the performance of religious identity. A summary of my argument is available on the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon blog (here, and the full article is available open access here). In the article I discussed a number of Middle English poems in which the Virgin speaks directly to the reader as she holds the dead body of her son. In the poems and in the devotional images of the pietà, the Virgin is an exemplary figure. In one lyric, the Virgin declares ‘Who cannot wepe come lerne at me’ [who cannot weep, come learn at me] and when the self-confessed ‘harde-hartid [hard-hearted]’ narrator hears her story and sees the wounded body of Christ, he cannot help but sob, prompting the Virgin to alter her refrain to ‘Who cannot wepe may lerne at thee [who cannot weep may learn at thee]’. The Virgin’s sorrow for her son’s death teaches us the pity and compassion that we should aim to emulate.

When I wrote my article, I had not come across this remarkable Middle English lyric, so I decided to share it on my blog today. It comes from Karen Saupe’s excellent TEAMS edition of Middle English Marian Lyrics (number 40; translation mine):

Thou synfull man of resoun that walkest here up and downe,
Cast thy respeccyoun one my mortall countenaunce.
Se my blody terys fro my herte roote rebowne,
My dysmayd body chased from all plesaunce,
Perysshed wyth the swerd moste dedly of vengaunce.
Loke one my sorofull chere and have therof pytee,
Bewailynge my woo and payne, and lerne to wepe wyth me.

[You sinful man of reason that walks here up and down, cast your sight upon my mortal countenance. See my bloody tears flowing from my heart’s root, my dismayed body chased from all pleasure, perished with the sword most deadly of vengeance. Look upon my sorrowful cheer and have thereof pity, bewailing my woe and pain, and learn to weep with me.]

Mary addresses the reader as though they are walking past the site of the crucifixion (rather like the lyrics in which Christ speaks from the cross, that I discussed in my previous blogpost for Good Friday here). Mary directs our attention to her bloody tears, her body that has been chased from all pleasure, and wounded by a sword of venegeance (this refers to Luke 2:34-35 when Simeon tells Mary that her child is ‘destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel’ but’thy own soul a sword shall pierce’). Mary commands the reader to look upon her sorrowful face, have ‘pity’, and learn to weep with her.

Yf thu can not wepe for my perplexed hevynesse,
Yet wepe for my dere sone, which one my lap lieth ded
Wyth woundis innumerable, for thy wyckednesse,
Made redempcyoun wyth hys blood, spared not hys manhed.
Then the love of hym and mornynge of my maydenhed
Schuld chaunge thyne herte, and thu lyst behold and see
Hys deth and my sorow, and lerne to wepe wyth me.

[If you cannot weep for my perplexed heaviness, yet weep for my dear son, who lies dead upon my lap, with wounds innumerable, for your wickedness, he made redemption with his blood, he spared not his manhood. Then the love of him and the mourning of my maidenhood should change your heart, and you desire to behold and see his death and my sorrow, and learn to weep with me.]

The Virgin’s sorrow is truly touching here as she refers to her ‘perplexed’ heaviness, that is, her bewilderment and confusion. She understands that Christ has bought mankind’s redemption with his act of self-sacrifice on the cross ‘for thy wyckedness’, but as a mother holding the dead body of her son, this is a terrible truth to bear. Christ’s death and Mary’s sorrow combined should change our hearts and help us to learn to weep.

Thyne herte so indurat is that thu cane not wepe
For my sonnes deth, ne for my lamentacyoun?
Than wepe for thy synnes, when thu wakest of thy slepe
And remembre hys kyndnes, hys payne, hys passioun,
And fere not to call to me for supportacyoun.
I am thy frend unfeyned and ever have be;
Love my sone, kepe well hys lawes, and come dwell wyth me.

[Your heart is so hard that you cannot weep for my son’s death, nor for my lamentation? Then weep for your sins, when you wake from your sleep, and remember his kindness, his pain, his passion, and fear not to call to me for support. I am your friend unfeigned and ever have been. Love my son, keep well his laws, and come dwell with me.]

But if we remain ‘indurat’, that is callous or insensitive, to Christ’s death and Mary’s lamentation, then we must weep for our own sins. But Mary does not condemn the reader in this final stanza, she urges that we fear not to call upon her for support as she is our ‘frend unfeyned and ever have be’ [friend unfeigned and ever have been] She concludes by instructing us to love her son, keep his laws, and come dwell with her, a very poignant ending to the poem.

Cultivating Pity

These pietà lyrics are intensely concerned with the cultivation of ‘pity’. Sarah McNamer in her brilliant monograph Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (2010) has talked about Middle English lyrics as ‘script-like texts‘ which ask the reader to ‘perform compassion for that suffering victim in a private drama of the heart’ (p.1) As we see in the final stanza of the lyric, it is the ‘herte’ of the reader that the Virgin hopes to change with her own display of pity and compassion.

Pity‘ is one of my favourite words in Middle English. It has a range of interrelated meanings: a disposition to mercy; compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit; affection, tenderness; a feeling aroused by the suffering, distress, grief of another; sympathy. In Modern English ‘pity’ has lost some of these important meanings. In its definition of pity as a verb, the OED notes that ‘to feel pity for, to feel sorry for’ is often accompanied by ‘disdain or mild contempt for a person as intellectually or morally inferior.’ This could not be further from the meaning in Middle English. Pity is an emotion that creates connection and empathy between individuals, between the Christians and their God.

The Pity of Bilbo

Pity in the capacious medieval sense is also crucial to one of my favourite texts, The Lord of the Rings. (I know that we’re celebrating medieval texts today, but I can’t help celebrating Tolkien too, as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are a major reason why I’m a medievalist!) In The Fellowship of the Ring, this exchange famously takes place between Gandalf and Frodo when Gandalf reveals that Sauron is seeking the One Ring and he knows the name of Baggins and the Shire:

‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do now? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broken in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds. Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least. In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched.’

(from Chapter 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo uses the word ‘pity’ in its more modern sense, but Gandalf replies by reinstating its medieval meaning of ‘mercy’. Moreover, Gandalf explains that it is a result of his pity for Gollum that Bilbo escaped the evil effect of the Ring. The hobbits are remarkable characters in The Lord of the Rings because they are able to resist the power of the Ring to a greater extent than men and even elves. And here, according to Gandalf, it is pity and mercy that forms the foundation of that resistance.

The pity of Bilbo is a crucial lesson in The Lord of the Rings and this moment is alluded to again when Frodo and Sam finally reach Mount Doom and Gollum makes a final attempt to steal back his precious. In a rather mystical moment, Sam sees the confrontation between the ‘two rivals with other vision’:

A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. ‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

(from Chapter 3, ‘Mount Doom’, The Return of the King

When Frodo and Gollum face each other, Gollum is reduced to a ‘wholly ruined and defeated’ shape but Frodo is ‘untouchable now by pity’. He turns away to destroy the Ring and Sam is left facing Gollum, who begs for his life, whimpering ‘don’t kill us… Don’t hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ Sam, like Bilbo before him, cannot kill Gollum:

His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.

(from Chapter 3, ‘Mount Doom’, The Return of the King)

Gollum with the ringSam’s reflection that it would be just and deserved to kill Gollum, recalls Gandalf’s earlier speech to Frodo, as does his description of Gollum as ‘wretched’ (Gandalf said ‘he is very old and very wretched’). Sam has ‘no words to express what he felt’ when he sees Gollum, but it is clear that the words he is looking for are pity and mercy.

Sam lets Gollum live and once again, this is a crucial decision because once inside Mount Doom, Frodo, like Isildur before him, cannot destroy the Ring: ‘I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!‘ But Gollum makes one last attempt to take back his precious and in the ensuing struggle, he reclaims the Ring but slips over the edge into the fire below, destroying the Ring once and for all. Sam carries Frodo out of the mountain and, importantly, he asks Sam if he remembers Gandalf’s words: ‘Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.’ Sam’s pity for Gollum re-enacts Bilbo’s pity and as a result, the quest is complete. If Sam had not found it in his heart to have pity for Gollum, the Ring may not have been destroyed.

Gandalf and Galadriel

As a footnote to this post, I wanted to mention something fascinating that I noticed while watching the special features on the final Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. As a fan of all Peter Jackson’s films, I’m always keen to watch the extra scenes on the extended edition dvds and when I saw this moment at Dol Guldur, when Gandalf has been fighting the Necromancer, I couldn’t help but think of the pietà. (And if I remember rightly, Peter Jackson himself mentions Michaelangelo’s pietà in one of the special features interviews).

Galadriel holds the injured Gandalf on her lap and gazes upon him like the Virgin holding the body of Christ. And like Christ, Gandalf will rise again, to fight against Sauron and the forces of evil, and to encourage Frodo and the hobbits to cultivate the emotion of pity in their hearts.


Laura Varnam, ‘The Crucifix, The Pietà, and the Female Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe‘, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 41. 2 (2015), 208-237

My guest Blogpost on Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon blog, available here

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

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