Living on loaned time

Autumn has come to London: a mostly hot summer suddenly turned in the final week of September. I like early autumn, the time just before and just after the emniht (or ‘equal-night’, as an Anglo-Saxon would have called the equinox), when there is still some warmth and plenty of sunlight, but a slight nip in the air, and a crispness; and the leaves fall, and dark evenings feel cosy, and there is a sense of excitement in the air, as if something new is beginning, as if (paradoxically) all things are being made new.


The Menologium, an Old English poem about the seasons of the year and the calendar of the saints, which accompanies one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, marks the coming of autumn in these words:

Hwæt, we weorðiað wide geond eorðan
heahengles tiid on hærfeste,
Michaheles, swa þæt menigo wat,
fif nihtum ufor þæs þe folcum byð,
eorlum geywed emnihtes dæg.
And þæs embe twa niht þæt se teoða monð
on folc fereð, frode geþeahte,
October on tun us to genihte,
Winterfylleð, swa hine wide cigað
igbuende Engle and Seaxe,
weras mid wifum.

The Menologium, via the University of Virginia, ll. 176-186.

Listen, we [hold] worthy widely throughout the earth

the time of the high-angel Michael in the autumn,
so that many will know, five nights later
an Equinox is revealed to the earls, to the people.
And about two nights later, the tenth month

is carried unto the people, covered by the ancient,
October in the towns, called by us Winter-filleth
abundantly for us, as the Angles and the Saxons,
the island-dwellers, announce it widely,

both men and women.

Translation by Aaron K. Hostetter.

cotton_ms_tiberius_b_i_f112r start of Menologium
The opening of the MenologiumLondon, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 122r.  For more on this poem, see the various posts about it on A Clerk of Oxford, the blog of Eleanor Parker.

However, in my experience the hopefulness of early autumn soon gives way to drabness and darkness, as more and more hours turn to black, and the air becomes cold and damp, and the trees bare, and all things seem dull and dead, and pretty snowy winter never quite seems to begin.

This autumn is also a time of changes as I finish a major project at work and look to move on to something new: a time of endings, and the loss of something special, although hopefully also of new beginnings. Perhaps it is inevitable that it is this autumn when I am particularly aware of the fact that good things always come to an end.

And, just as Anglo-Saxon island-dwellers announced autumn widely (as the Menologium poet has it), so also a sense of loss and decay can be found throughout the literature of the period. A common collocation (that is, two or three words which are frequently used together) in Old English poetry is þis læne lif , generally interpreted as something like ‘this transient life’, although læne can be literally translated as ‘loaned’. Life is not ours forever, it is only lent to us. As the modern cliché has it, we are living on borrowed time.  But the Anglo-Saxon expression differs from ours by referring to the other side of the deal, emphasising not that humans have borrowed it, but the fact that God has loaned it.

So Bishop Wulfstan of York could write, in his homily on the day of judgement:

Leofan men, utan don, swa us ðearf is, beon swiðe gemyndige ure agenre þearfe and geþencan gelome, hu læne þis lif is, and hu egeslic se dom is, þe ealle menn to scylan on þam micclan domdæge, þonne god demeð manna gehwylcum be ærran gewyrhtan.

Napier, ed., Wulfstan, p. 182.

Beloved people, let us do as is necessary for us, let us be very mindful of our own need and think often about how transient this life is, and how dreadful judgement is, which must bring all people to the great day of judgement, when God will judge everyone according to their former deeds.

In the Paris Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 8824), a manuscript from the second quarter of the eleventh century, psalms are copied out in Latin alongside a translation into Old English verse. Psalm 62:4 is translated thus:

bnf_lat_8824_f073v Paris Psalter laene lif
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 8824, f. 73v

Your merciful spirit is much better than this loaned life which we live in …

Aside from the læne lif collocation, the general sense that life is fleeting is a general theme throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.  In a previous blogpost, I discussed a prayer for a gentle death found in two manuscripts.

royal_ms_2_b_v_f006v laene lif
London, British Library Royal MS 2 B V, f. 6v

My Lord, do not ever let me depart from this wretched life through a sudden death, but look when my time will be and when it may be your will that I should give up this temporary life. Let me end my days with gentleness.

One popular early medieval Latin prayer opens with these words:

cccc_ms_391_p599 Tempus meum prope est
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 391, p. 599

O Lord, hear my prayer, for now I know that my time is near; grant me, O Lord, wisdom and understanding, and lighten my heart, that I may know you always, all the days of my life.

But it is in poetry that the brevity of life is most frequently expressed. Modern scholars have classified a number of Old English poems as ‘elegies’ because of their expression of the loss of former joys. Many of these are found in the Exeter Book, a large tenth-century manuscript from Exeter Cathedral which is the largest surviving collection of Old English poetry (and which will shortly be on view at the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War). In this manuscript, The Seafarer and The Phoenix both use the læne lif phrase; and the speaker of The Wanderer reflects on how one may live wisely, given that all joys come to an end:

Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle.

The Wanderer, via the University of Virginia, ll. 73-80a.

A prudent man must recognize how appalling it will be when all the wealth in this world stands waste – as even now randomly throughout this middle-earth walls are standing, wind-blown, rime-covered, the ramparts storm-beaten. The wine-halls are crumbling, the rulers are lying dead, deprived of pleasure, the whole proud company has fallen near the wall.

Translated by S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, p. 324.

But perhaps the most poignant expression of this mood in the elegiac poems can be found in The Ruin, towards the end of the Exeter Book. This poem is generally interpreted as depicting the crumbled architecture of the Roman cities which could still be seen in the Anglo-Saxon era.

Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
Wonað giet se …num geheapen,
fel on
grimme gegrunden
scan heo…
…g orþonc ærsceaft

The Ruin, via the University of Virginia, ll. 6b-17a.

An earthy grasp holds the lordly builders, decayed and gone, the cruel grip of the ground, while a hundred generations of humanity have passed away. Often has this wall, hoary with lichen, stained with red, lasted out one kingdom after another, left upstanding under storms: lofty and broad, it fell. Still the rampart, hewn by men, crumbles away … they were joined together … cruelly sharpened … shone … skilful work ancient structure …

Translated by S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, p. 402.

Just like the Roman walls, the final leaves of the manuscript itself have fallen into ruin, damaged by fire. Just as the Anglo-Saxons had lost the skilful work of those who came before them, we in our turn have lost much of theirs.

IMG_20161027_165915 - Copy.jpg
The remains of a Roman wall, beneath the 16th-century King’s Manor.  St Leonard’s Place, York.


Works used:

S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Everyman, 1982).

Arthur Napier, ed., Wulfstan: Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen Homilien nebst Untersuchungen über ihre Echtheit (Berlin: Weidmann, 1883).

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