Rivers of tears, softening stone

“Jesus wept.”  Famously the shortest verse in the Authorised English version of the Bible (John 11:35), when Jesus weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus, this is actually slightly longer in Latin, usually a more succinct language than English: Et lacrimatus est Iesus.

A major focus of my work is on the circumstances surrounding Anglo-Saxon prayer, including how the human body was put to use in it: the posture used in prayer, and the sign of the cross, for example.  Weeping is something I have only referred to in passing.  So this blogpost is an attempt to redress this – part of an (entirely inadvertent) series on bodily fluids, given than I have already covered both vomit and snot.

I’ve written elsewhere that confessional prayer was supposed to be an emotional process.  The texts of popular early medieval confessions suggest that their readers were expected not simply to list their sins, but to respond to them, to feel deep remorse, and to involve their body in their acts of contrition.

The English word ‘tears’ already existed in eleventh-century: we can see tearas used here as a gloss for the Latin lacrimas, the latter here written in the beautiful hand of the master scribe Eadwig Basan (third line down, fifth word).

Lacrimas arundel_ms_155_f174r
London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 174r

Pour forth my tears, just as you established the waters above the earth, because my heart is as hard as stone.

The speaker’s tears are compared to the waters which God set upon the earth when it was created; in a quick shift of metaphors, his heart becomes something hard like stone, but which can nevertheless be softened.

A similar sentiment is expressed in English, in one of my favourite series of prayers, in Cotton MS Tiberius A III.

Abundance of tears cotton_ms_tiberius_a_iii_f047r
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 47r

My Lord, soften the hardness of my stony heart, and give me abundant tears, so that I may weep over and repent my misdeeds, which I, a wretch, daily commit against your will.

Seeing the two side by side makes me think of a stream which gradually wears away the mountain down which it runs.

A stream on a Welsh hillside, surrounded by fractured rock and distant misty mountains
Snowdonia, Wales, 2011

Harley MS 863, an eleventh-century psalter, includes a litany and a series of prayers for all kinds of occasions.  In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about one for people who are making a journey; in the same series as this is a prayer Pro compunctione lacrimarum, ‘for the provoking of tears’.

Pro compunctione lacrimarum harley_ms_863_f112v
London, British Library Harley MS 863, f. 112v

Almighty and most merciful God, who produced a fountain of living water from stone for the thirsting people, lead from the hardness of my heart the tears of compunction, so that I may merit to bemoan my sins, and that I may deserve to receive remission, with you having mercy.

In Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (otherwise known for its fabulous dragon-ception miniature, there is a programme of prayers for use in the morning, which I discuss briefly in my forthcoming book, Late Anglo-Saxon Prayer in Practice: Before the Books of Hours.  This includes a relatively short prayer of contrition in which the penitent does not confess to specific sins, but instead asks for the gift of tears in the kind of language already seen.  Particularly striking is the prayer’s use of rhetorical questions and exclamations:

Quid ergo cotton_ms_tiberius_c_vi_f022v
London, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 22v

So what am I to say, wretched man, when I come to be judged before the power of your divine majesty?  If the just man will barely be saved before you, how will I appear?  My God, give me tears, that I may merit to lament the sins which I have committed; help me, my God, help me, angels of God, before the eternal fire swallows me up.  Stir up tears and let them be stirred up; stir up rivers of tears in the weeping of my eyes, flood my jaws, flood my cheeks.  What else may I do, O Lord, how will I reply?

To me, these are reminiscent of the later work of Anselm, the twelfth-century abbot of Bec and Canterbury, who is one of the best-known writers of prayers and meditations in the western medieval church.  As I hope to show in my book, this style associated with Anselm, and the programmatic prayer of the Books of Hours, were already in existence, in development, before the twelfth century.

Due to the ongoing work, I’m not sure if I am going to keep up my monthly posts on this blog, or whether I will pause it for now and come back to it in a few months.  In any case, when my book is out, you will hear it here first!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, your readers! Thank you also for ALL of your hard work! 💕


  2. 4963andypop says:

    Interesting blogpost, interesting work. The idea that our hearts are hardened by our corrupt thoughts and deeds and only softened through the gift of tears of remorse, which then bring us closer to God.

    I think in our culture we often think of tears as a penalty, as a punishment or an embarrassment, as they point to our weakness. Not as a gift.

    Also having spent much sorrowful time recently in the mountains, this was particularly touching to me. Good luck with your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike Woodhouse says:

    Fascinating as ever. I love seeing the original manuscripts but would it be possible to also give us the untranslated text as well. They’re a bit of a strain on the eyes sometimes.


  4. David C Brown says:

    Psalm 126:5: “They that sow in tears shall reap with rejoicing”.


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