Four Medieval Texts for Michaelmas

Four Medieval Texts for Michaelmas

BL Harley 624, f. 134v (Canterbury, 12th century)

Today is Michaelmas, the golden autumn feast of St Michael and All Angels – the ‘high-angel’s tide in harvest’, as the Old English Menologium calls it.

Hwæt, we weorðiað wide geond eorðan
heahengles tiid on hærfeste,
Michaheles, swa þæt menigo wat,
fif nihtum ufor… emnihtes dæg.

Lo, we honour widely throughout the earth
the high-angel’s tide in harvest,
Michael, as the multitude know,
five nights after the equinox day.

St Michael, dragon-slayer, guardian of humanity and weigher of souls, was immensely popular in the medieval period, and in this post are four pieces about St Michael by medieval English writers: a Latin sequence by the eighth-century Northumbrian scholar Alcuin; an English homily from c.990 by Ælfric; a prayer in verse by John Lydgate (c.1370–c.1451); and a homily by John Mirk (fl. c.1382–c.1414). Illustrations are from English manuscripts in the British Library and from some churches I’ve recently visited.

BL Arundel 91, f. 26v
(Canterbury, 12th-century; compare a Victorian rendering of the same.)

Michael, Archangel
Of the King of Kings,
Give ear to our voices.

We acknowledge thee to be the Prince of the citizens of heaven:
And at thy prayer God sends
His angels unto men,

That the enemy with cunning craft shall not prevail
To do the hurt he craves
To weary men.
Yea, thou hast the dominion of perpetual Paradise,
And ever do the holy angels honour thee.

Thou wert seen in the Temple of God,
A censer of gold in thy hands,
And the smoke of it fragrant with spices
Rose up till it came before God.

Thou with strong hand didst smite the cruel dragon,
And many souls didst rescue from his jaws.
Then was there a great silence in heaven,
And a thousand thousand saying “Glory to the Lord King.”

Hear us, Michael,
Greatest angel,
Come down a little
From thy high seat,
To bring us the strength of God,
And the lightening of His mercy.

And do thou, Gabriel,
Lay low our foes,
And thou, Raphael,
Heal our sick,
Purge our disease, ease thou our pain,
And give us to share
In the joys of the blessed.

– Alcuin, Sequence for St Michael (translated by Helen Waddell, Medieval Latin Lyrics (New York, 1948), pp.91-3; the Latin text can be found here.)

Royal 1 B XI, f. 6 (Canterbury, 12th century)

“I say unto you that their angels ever behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” By these words it is shown that an angel is appointed for every believer as a guardian, who shields him against the devil’s plotting and supports him in holy virtues. As the Psalmist says of every righteous person: “God commanded his angels about you, that they should hold you and bear you in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” It is a great honour for Christians that each person, from birth, has an angel assigned to him as a guardian. Just so it is written of the Apostle Peter that the angel led him out of prison and he came to his companions and asked for entrance, knocking, and the faithful ones said, “It is not Peter who is knocking, it is his angel.”

Truly, the angels whom God has appointed as guardians for his chosen never leave his presence, because God is everywhere, and wherever the angels fly they are ever in his presence, and enjoy his glory. They take news of our words and deeds to the Almighty, although to him nothing is hidden; as the Archangel Raphael said to the man of God, Tobias, “When you prayed, I offered your prayers before God.”

The Old Testament tells us that archangels are set over every nation, above the other angels, so that they may protect the peoples, as Moses, in the fifth book of the Old Testament, reveals in these words: “When the high God separated and scattered the offspring of Adam, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the numbers of his angels”. The prophet Daniel agrees with this in his prophecy: a certain angel of God spoke to Daniel concerning the archangel who guided the Persians, and said, “The archangel came to me, the leader of the Greek people, and none was my helper but Michael, leader of the Hebrews. Even now Michael, one of the foremost of the leaders, came to support me, and I remained there with the king of the Persians.” With these words, when he said that Michael came to help him, it is shown what great care the archangels take in their authority over mankind.

Now it is to be believed that the archangel Michael has care of Christian people, who was the leader of the Hebrew people while they believed in God; and that he manifested himself when he built himself a church among a faithful people on the mount Gargano, as we read before. It is arranged by God’s dispensation that the glorious angel of heaven is continually the helper of Christians on earth and their advocate in heaven before Almighty God, who lives and reigns for ever in eternity. Amen.

– Ælfric, Homily for Michaelmas, from the first series of his Catholic Homilies

St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene
in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, c.1031)

In Old English (the whole sermon, of which this is only the closing paragraphs, can be found online here):

“Ic secge eow þæt heora englas symle geseoð mines Fæder ansyne seðe on heofonum is.” Mid þisum wordum is geswutelod þæt ælcum geleaffullum men is engel to hyrde geset, þe hine wið deofles syrwunge gescylt, and on halgum mægnum gefultumað, swa swa se sealm-scop be gehwilcum rihtwisum cwæð, “God bebead his englum be ðe, þæt hi ðe healdon, and on heora handum hebban, þelæs ðe ðu æt stane þinne fot ætspurne.” Micel wurðscipe is cristenra manna, þæt gehwilc hæbbe fram his acennednysse him betæhtne engel to hyrdrædene, swa swa be ðam apostole Petre awriten is, þaða se engel hine of ðam cwearterne gelædde, and he to his geferum becom, and cnucigende inganges bæd. Þa cwædon þa geleaffullan, “Nis hit na Petrus þæt ðær cnucað, ac is his engel.”

Þa englas soðlice ðe God gesette to hyrdum his gecorenum, hí ne gewitað næfre fram his andweardnysse; forðan ðe God is æghwær, and swa hwider swa ða englas fleoð, æfre hí beoð binnan his andwerdnysse, and his wuldres brucað. Hi bodiað ure weorc and gebedu þam Ælmihtigan, þeah ðe him nán ðing digle ne sy, swa swa se heah-engel Raphahel cwæð to ðam Godes menn, Tobían, “Þaða ge eow gebædon, ic offrode eower gebedu ætforan Gode.”

Seo Ealde Æ ús sægð, þæt heah-englas sind gesette ofer gehwilce leodscipas, þæt hi ðæs folces gymon, ofer ða oðre englas, swa swa Moyses, on ðære fiftan béc ðære Ealdan Æ, þysum wordum geswutelode, “Þaða se healica God todælde and tostencte Adames ofspring, þa sette he ðeoda gemæru æfter getele his engla.” Þisum andgite geþwærlæcð se witega Danihel on his witegunge. Sum Godes engel spræc to Danihele embe ðone heah-engel þe Perscisce ðeode bewiste, and cwæð, “Me com to se heah-engel, Greciscre þeode ealdor, and nis heora nán mín gefylsta, buton Michahel, Ebreisces folces ealdor. Efne nú Michahel, án ðæra fyrmestra ealdra, com me to fultume, and ic wunode ðær wið þone cyning Persciscre ðeode.” Mid þisum wordum is geswutelod hú micele care ða heah-englas habbað heora ealdordomes ofer mancynn, ðaða he cwæð, þæt Michahel him come to fultume.

Is nu geleaflic þæt se heah-engel Michahel hæbbe gymene cristenra manna, seðe wæs ðæs Ebreiscan folces ealdor, þa hwile ðe hí on God belyfdon; and þæt he geswutelode, þaða he him sylfum cyrcan getimbrode betwux geleaffulre ðeode, on ðam munte Gargano, swa swa we hwene ǽr ræddon. Þæt is gedón be Godes fadunge, þæt se mǽra heofonlica engel beo singallice cristenra manna gefylsta on eorðan, and þingere on heofonum to ðam Ælmihtigan Gode, seðe leofað and rixað á on ecnysse. Amen.

Michael presenting souls to God in Lansdowne 383, f. 168v (Shaftesbury, 12th century)

Here Michael weighs the soul of a dying man, as devils try to seize it and the Virgin intercedes on its behalf (Yates Thompson 13, f. 151):

In this ‘Doom’ painting at Wenhaston in Suffolk, Michael weighs a soul against its little evil deeds:

O Myghell! by grace of Cryst Iesu
Callid among angelis þe hevenly champioun,
Be a prerogatyf synguler of vertu,
Held a batayll, venquysshed the dragoun,
Be thow our sheld and our proteccyoun
In euery myschef of daungeris infernall,
Dyffende our party, presente our orisoun,
Vp to the lord that gouerneth all.

– John Lydgate (from here)

Stowe 12, f. 305 (Norwich, 14th century)

That is:

O Michael, by grace of Christ Jesu
Called among angels the heavenly champion,
[Who] by a special property of virtue
Held a battle, vanquished the dragon,
Be thou our shield and our protection
In every trouble of dangers infernal,
Defend our cause, present our prayer
Unto the Lord who governeth all.

Arundel 109, f. 207 (London, 1446)

Good men and woymen, suche a day 3e schull haue Seynt Michaeles day, Goddys holy archangyll. þe whech day 3e schull comme to chyrch and worschyp God and þys holy archangyll. Then schull 3e know þat holy chyrche þat day makyþe mencyon of all Goddys holy angels for þe gret helpe and seruice þat mankynd haþe of hom. But specyale he makeþe mynde of Saynt Mychaell for þe prerogatyues þat he haþe before all oþer; for he ys wondurfull yn aperyng, he ys mervelous yn myracles worchyng, and victoryus yn his feghtyng…

He kepyth paradyse, and takyþe yn sowles þat ben send þedyr. He schall sle þe Antecryst yn þe mownt of Olyuete. He schall byd all þe ded ryse yn þe day of dome. He schall bryng to þe dome þe crosse of Cryst, þe nayles, þe spere, þe crowne of þornes, and all oþer ynstrumentys of his passyon…

Then schull ye all knel adowne, and pray to Seynt Michaell þat he apere to you, when ye schull passe out of þys world, and defende you from your enmyse, and bring you to þe ioye of paradise. Amen.

– John Mirk (from here)

St Winnow, Cornwall

Good men and women, on such a day you should keep St Michael’s Day, God’s holy archangel; on this day you should come to church and worship God and this holy archangel. You should know that holy church on that day makes mention of all God’s holy angels, for the great help and service that mankind has from them; but especially it keeps the memory of St Michael, because of the particular powers that he has above all others, for he is wonderful in appearing, he is marvellous in miracle-working, and victorious in his fighting…

He guards paradise, and receives the souls which are sent thither. He shall slay the Antichrist on the mount of Olivet.  He shall bid all the dead to rise on the day of doom, and he shall bring to the doom the Cross of Christ, the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns, and all other instruments of his Passion…

So you should all kneel down, and pray to Saint Michael that he may appear to you when you pass out of this world, and defend you from your enemies, and bring you to the joy of paradise. Amen.

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire
The painted screen at Westhall in Suffolk

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