I saw four fair creatures
travelling together. Dark were their tracks,
the path very black. Swift was their motion,
faster than fowl they flew through the air,
dove under the wave. He worked unresting,
the fighting warrior who showed them the way,
all four of them, over the plated gold.
This is an Anglo-Saxon riddle (number 40) from the Exeter Book. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what it describes!
Another riddle: what does Old English literature have to do with rice-growing town in northern Italy? Well, Vercelli is home to one of the world’s oldest English manuscripts, usually known as the Vercelli Book.
In the late tenth century, about the time of the Battle of Maldon, an English scribe was compiling a selection of Christian writing in the Anglo-Saxon language. This collection included 23 homilies, a prose life of Saint Guthlac of Croyland and six poems. This book stayed in England for a while but sometime in the twelfth century it went for a pilgrimage and ended up in a nice town along the Via Francigena. Vercelli at that time had hospitals (hostels) for pilgrims, and the hospital of St. Brigid was particularly popular with English travelers. Perhaps a rich church official offered the book to the hospital as a gift? In any case, somehow the book stayed and, for about six hundred years, sat in the capitulary library gathering dust.
In 1822, Dr. Friedrich Blume, a German law professor and bibliographer, scoured significant Italian libraries looking for material for the study of sources of Roman law. Along the way, being a meticulous sort of person, he also made a list of literary works. Between October 27 and November 19, he stopped at Vercelli and fossicked about in the capitular library, where he found a strange tome entitled Homiliarium liber ignoti idiomatis–‘A Book of Homilies in an Unknown Language’. Blume described it as follows:
Legends or homilies in the Anglo-Saxon language. This is rather peculiar, as most capitular libraries in Italy contain nothing but Latin or Italian manuscripts; even Greek ones are found only in Verona and in Ravenna.
Blume published his notes in a four-volume collection called Iter Italicum. About ten years later, the secretary of the Record Commission in London hired a German scholar to transcribe the contents. This was Christian Maier, who went to Vercelli and began transcribing away, unfortunately mutilating the manuscript in the process by using gallnut extract on it.
The Vercelli Poems
Then was there tumult, the sea was stirred; the horn-fish played, gliding through the deep, and above circled the grey sea-mew, greedy of prey. The sun was darkened and the winds arose; waves broke and seas ran high, the rigging moaned. Billows swept them, and water-terror rose with might.
Andreas is a poetic version of a life of Saint Andrew the Apostle that was derived from the Greek story The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi (Maneaters) from about the fourth century.
Saint Andrew’s main opponents are the ‘Mermedonians’—cannibals who have blinded and imprisoned Matthew in their homeland, presumably fattening him up for their annual pagan feast.
Andrew is portrayed as an English warrior, a sailor whose crew (unbeknownst to him) are Jesus (first mate) and a couple of angels. This makes for some nice dramatic irony when Andrew talks to Christ about His own life. The full text translated into modern(ish) English is here.
By the way, it’s appropriate that this should be the first poem in the Vercelli Book because one of the town’s most impressive churches is Saint Andrew’s Basilica, an enormous Gothic building built between 1219 and 1224 under the direction of Cardinal Bicchieri, who had just served as papal legate in Cambridge.
The Fates of the Apostles
Listen—I discovered this poem, weary of the road,
inside my sickened soul. I gathered it widely:
how these noblemen revealed their courage,
brilliant and blessed in glory.
Cynewulf –one of only twelve Anglo-Saxon poets whose name we know–signed this poem using runic letters within the text to spell out his name. The poem is a list of the twelve Apostles and their deeds and martyrdoms. It seems to be specifically addressed to a pilgrim. You can read a translation here
Constantine was instantly ready —
through that holy command, his heart-box was opened
and he looked up, just as that messenger declared,
the faithful peace-weaver. He saw there bright with ornaments,
the beautiful tree of glory across the roof of the heavens,
adorned with gold, gems were shining;
The pale wood was inscribed with book-staves,
bright and light: “WITH THIS SIGN YOU
WILL OVERCOME THIS TERRIBLE PERIL,
AND WITHSTAND THE HATEFUL HORDE.”
Cynewulf likewise signed this poem about how St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine (272-337) discovered the cross on which Christ was crucified. There is some snappy byplay between her and Judas that makes it more interesting than you might expect. Read it here, if you dare.
The Dream of the Rood
Yet as I lay there a long while
I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
Until I heard it utter a sound;
It began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
I was cut down from the edge of the wood, ripped up by my roots.”
The Vercelli Book is the only manuscript copy of “The Dream of the Rood”, though a section of the poem has been found on the Ruthwell Cross, an eighth-century stone monument. In the poem a man relates how the True Cross came to him in a dream and gave his version of Christ’s crucifixion. Rood comes from ‘rod’ and means cross or crucifix.
Soul and Body
You are deaf and dumb—
you no longer possess any of your pleasures!
I must nevertheless seek you perforce nightly,
agonized by our sins, and turn away from you
at once at cock-crow, when holy men
sing their praises to the Living God,
seeking the abodes to which you have consigned me,
and that merciless homestead,
and the many mold-worms must chew upon you,
tearing you horribly, darkened creatures,
gluttonous and greedy.
In this poem, a disgruntled soul comes along to its host corpse every night to nag it about having neglected spiritual matters, and now look at the situation. Read it here.
About the riddle: it describes a quill pen held with two fingers and a thumb (i.e. four things). The ‘warrior’ is the scribe’s arm and the ‘plated gold’ probably refers to an ink horn (not visible in the picture).