Death! Misery! Despair! Belly-laughs!

I’ve been coordinating Middle English Reading Group this semester (so much fun!), and, after adventures with Sir Ywain and King Horn (lessons learned: when you marry a lady, stay with the lady. Wandering off and leaving your wife behind can only lead to disaster), we were reading some lyric poems the other week, and I found this charming example:

Evermore, wher-so-evere I be,
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

As I went for-to solace
I herde a man sike and seye, ‘Allas,
Of me now thus stondeth the cas:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘I have ben lord of tour and toun;
I sette noght by my grete renoun,
For deeth wol plukke it al adoun:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Whan I shal deye I am not seur,
In what contree or in what houre;
Wher-fore I sobbyng seye to my power,
“The drede of deeth doth trouble me.”

‘Whan my soule and my body departed shullen bem
Of my juggement no man can telle me,
Nor of place wher that I shal be:
Ther-fore drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Jhesu Crist, whan that he sholde suffre his passioun,
To his Fader he seyde wyth greet devocioun,
“This is the cause of my intercessioun:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.”

‘Alle cristen peple, beth ye wyse and ware,-
This world is but a chery-feire,
Repleet wyth sorwe and fulfilled wyth care:
Ther-fore the drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Whether that I be myrie or good wyne drynke,
Whan that I do on my laste day thenke,
It maketh my soule and body to shrynke,
For the drede of deeth sore troubleth me.’

Jhesu us graunte him so to honoure
That at oure ende He may be oure socour
And kepe us from the fendes power,
For than drede of deeth shal not trouble me.

Now, not only is this little lyric kind of hilarious, it’s also *useful* to me, since lately – in mostly unrelated contexts – it’s come to my attention that some people think death was particularly scary in the Middle Ages (as opposed, perhaps, to death in Ancient Rome, which was a solemn and noble undertaking?).

I can sort of see why one might think that. I mean, if you were picked up and dumped in the year 1066, your primary concern would be NOT DYING of ALL THE DEATH, wouldn’t it? The Horrible Histories school of popular history might have something to do with it, as well.

Nope. Death: not really any scarier in the middle ages than it is now! There was, of course, a lot of death in the middle ages, including all the nasty Horrible Histories stuff: wars and plagues and famines and people impaling you up arse*. But there is an awful lot of scary death today: wars and plagues and famines and assassinations still happen. We just handle death through different social and cultural frameworks from our forebears (different from our forebears a mere century ago, let alone the better part of a millennium).

Which is where this poem comes in handy. I like it because it neatly illustrates the ever-present consciousness of death which it seems people expect of the middle ages. There’s this whole complex here, about how death is something to be feared; that whatever worldly pleasures one might accrue, they’re all overshadowed by the fear of death. The unknown seems to be an important factor in the speaker’s drede of deeth: he doesn’t know when he’ll die, or what his fate will be, and thus he lives in perpetual fear of death.

But wait. This poem is funny. It’s stuffed full of hyperbole: the speaker’s fears grow more and more overblown, to the point where he justifies them by explaining that Jesus himself feared death! At that point, you know something’s up: this fear-of-death literature isn’t exactly original,** and the audience, hearing the line Jhesu Crist, whan that he sholde suffre his  passioun, must surely be expecting the neat resolution; must surely expect to hear that they are saved from the drede of deeth by said passion, and so on and so forth. But the poet withholds the expected conclusion for another couple of stanzas, building up more and more frenzied exclamations on the topic of the drede of deeth.

At this point it’s worth noting how the poem began: As I went me for to solace, I herde a man… This isn’t the poet directly uncovering his soul to the audience; nor is he directly exhorting them to the fear of death. He, or conceivably she, presents the entire excursus on the topic as the words of a man whom the poet heard when seeking to amuse*** him(her)self. The way Stevick’s punctuated the text, our speaker finishes up on the second-last stanza, and the poet (and presumably we, the audience, who may well know the tune and be singing along), breathe a sigh of relief and remind ourselves that thanks to Jesus, we do not in fact need to be in drede of deeth! Everyone have another beer!

Even if Stevick’s punctuation misrepresents who’s speaking in the final stanza, the death-fearing man is still a comic object: perhaps even more so, since the final stanza, with its neat formula about honouring Jesus for than the drede of deeth shal not trouble me, is completely at odds with his previous characterisation of his fears.

The composer of this lyric; the (presumed) audience who heard and sang it; the scribe who wrote it down; the owner of the manuscript which preserved it: all these participants probably shared some common ideas about death, at least as for as long as it takes to read this poem out. That death, and the unknown, could be scary. That one need not live in drede of deeth, if one honour’s Jesus in one’s life.

… And taking death too seriously makes you look like a bit of a twithead.


*Not in the fun way. In the King Richard sort of way.

**In fact, the textbook I got this from – Robert D. Stevick’s One Hundred Middle English Lyrics, prints a very similar poem before this one, with the refrain Timor mortis conturbat me.

*** Stevick glosses “solace” (reflexive verb) as “delight, amuse”, and I can’t see any reason to argue with him.


11 Responses to “Death! Misery! Despair! Belly-laughs!”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Neat analysis Ms E. I was thinking as I read the lyric, “Wait, the refrain is a translation of Timor mortis….” But it’s not actually a translation of the whole poem, is it?

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      No, it’s not. It’s pretty close in some places, but it’s… more like a variation, I think. Timor mortis has a ‘brid’ telling the tale, and I haven’t actually looked up brid, but I assume it’s either bird or woman instead of bloke; and Timor mortis is still funny, but it strikes me as slightly less so than ‘the drede of deeth’ (the phrase itself is funnier than its rather more imposing latin counterpart). And this version has lines which are a little bit longer, I think.

  2. Annelise Says:

    The line “This world is but a chery-feire” is lovely… And this is an excellent post!

    I’d find it interesting to look into the inherent nature of the ‘uncertainty’: the difference between modern Western imaginations in a fear of death, and the common medieval ones. Of course we still fear death/decay, dread it or are baffled by it, but the way we speak of and image this seems quite different now according to our own paradigms.

    Seems to me (though I’ve read only a little) that literary and religious depictions in that period render the uncertain afterlife much more concrete, enfleshed and potentially monstrous than ours must be, and that this would have seemed natural to them… A supernature full of specific, although ghastly and endless, representations of possibility. On the other hand I assume that most modern uncertaintyof death- whether out of secular spheres, or even most religious one- looks more darkly abstract and clouded. There are all the feelings of uncertainty (unescapably characterised by the last few centuries’ philosophy, no less…) but we can’t take so seriously the images we’d now consider superstitious. The specific and visual ones, though in literature they still magnify our own feeling so aptly.

    If this impression is correct, I feel it would be a major difference in what is otherwise a common experience. It does change the tone in which the very visible, ‘humanity-situated’ image of Jesus’ gift interacts with the emotion… So I’m interested to know whether I generalise/misread (and, if so, why this feeling of ‘difference’ comes across).

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I think you’re right that the “uncertainty” part of death is differently expressed/experienced – I think that might be what’s prompting people to think that medieval death is more scary somehow. Death is such an abstract concept to us that the gritty harrowing of hell type stuff strikes us as either superstitious or REALLY SCARY, or maybe both.

  3. Annelise Says:

    M’m. Also because, as you say, death was much more ‘in your face’ then. Now we can confine it and keep things more clean, hopefully less unnecessarily horrible, etc. We avoid talking about it, and don’t even have to be confronted with the death required for our animal products. We avoid thinking about less sanitised or more war-torn places in our world, and well because it’s absolutely overwhelming (especially when our own lifestyle has caused part of the cycle). Maybe the medieval lifestyle just didn’t have the luxury of detachment.

    It occurs to me that my question might have been prompted by a conversation I had a little while ago with a Catholic friend regarding Purgatory- and how Dante has given us a great misconception of their belief there. Apparently it’s correct to think of this not necessarily being within ‘place and time’, and not a punishment, but rather the completion of the process of refinement (assuming that the process is essential for the reality, I guess). Again very abstract instead of imagerial, though there is less fear of the charge of superstition. It appears that the modern way of picturing the supernatural always admits less of the physical. Even within such a deeply anti-dualist, sacramental way of thinking.

    -“either superstitious or REALLY SCARY, or maybe both”… An interesting point! Maybe that’s why our society generally hides itself from the existence of the entire medieval period as well. Just look at Australia’s high school curriculum, to begin with.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Awww, I had a great time doing medieval history in year eight! I wish I’d kept my project: I made two giant roll-out maps of my hypothetical demense. I PLANNED MY CROP ROTATIONS for a decade! I built my castle somewhere utterly ridiculous! I wrote out a list all the important figures on my estate and their assigned duties! I was a very responsible thirteen-year-old nobleperson, I was.

      I do think the lack of medieval history options at stage six level – when you can study the BODYLINE BOWLING SERIES in modern history! – is disappointing, though. Unless you take Extension, you’re limited to either ancient or modern history: and I *distinctly remember* my modern history unit on the French Revolution characterising the Ancien Regime as medieval, which it bloody well was not.

      • Annelise Says:

        Precisely- those are the only two options in the whole History syllabus. Students might be excused for thinking the Ancien Regime must have existed somewhere during the late Classical period, which directly proceeded the French Revolution. But those projects sound great!

        I’m planning to do Education Honours next year (replacing two of our regular fourth year research subjects, which is the main appeal), perhaps constructing a few unit outlines based on research into experienced teachers’ attitudes and approaches. Sounds like the topic was taught quite well at your school, which is refreshing! But this train of thought has made me realise how perfectly medieval literature would fit into the Extension English ‘Texts and Ways of Thinking’ topic- what with its emphasis on both philosophical and imaginative background, and its opportunity to respond with extended compositions. (One can only dream!)

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          I’m not sure that the unit actually *was* taught very well at my school. I certainly enjoyed it, but… hmm, well, my year eight history and geography education was strange. Most of the content was teach-your-self out of the textbook (RETRO and GEOactive, fyi); the two subjects were bundled in with PHD and “Faith and Life”; and the classes were entirely structured around Blooms Assignments (the ones where tasks are given points according to difficulty – you had to take a total number of points, from a certain number of topic areas, and they were additionally divided according Thinking Hats, and you had to complete one assignment from each Hat): just figuring out how to complete the class probably deserved points! It worked really well for me, but… well, it generated a really high marking load for the teachers; marking was uneven (my counterpart at the top of the other class copy-pasted most of his assignments from the internet, while I was forbidden to hand in handwritten assignments because it wasn’t “professional” or something); and generally speaking, unless you were an unusually motivated thirteen-year-old, the lack of structure in the class period, and the lack of “copy-from-the-board”info worked against the effectiveness of the course. It was GREAT for me, and OK for some others (I have a feeling it was pretty good for some of the students who weren’t so bright, actually; a lot of this free-style learning which is supposed to be good for gifted kids works out quite well for those who are struggling, too), but overall… well, they wound the program back and then wrapped it up completely after a couple of years.

          For me, though, it meant I took AS MANY OF MY ASSIGNMENT TASKS AS POSSIBLE on medieval history. I have not changed much! 😀

          • Annelise Says:

            Wow, that is very odd indeed… It sounds chaotic! Perhaps when I get around to the project, I might ask you for some thoughts on what content/approaches you believe should actually exist in a well-taught structural model. Watch this space!

            I’m with you regarding completely taking advantage of the system in favour of medieval-ness. It looks like I may qualify for a M.S. major next year (which I’m obviously not supposed to aim at) even before I make it to my actual English major in fifth year, what with all the cross-listing. (Dear USyd English department, I love thee abundantlike!)

            These comments are becoming increasingly narrow, which I take as a sign that I should head for bed. That and the fact that I have to get up before six tomorrow- which still feels like well before five! Sigh. Thank you for the fascinating conversation, though.

  4. Annelise Says:

    (Not to paint to bleak or escapist a picture. Of course there are happy moderns as well… But I hold to the point about the History curriculum.)

  5. Annelise Says:

    *Sorry, tiredness takes over typing skills tonight! “a few -medieval- unit outlines”… Along with a main emphasis of ‘attitudes to medieval studies in Australian high schools’ or the like.

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