“Joy or sex?”, I asked you. And your answer was (almost) resoundingly, joy!
Notwithstanding those among my blessed readers whose spirituality has evidently spiralled downwards into the low sink of debauchery (I’m looking at you, Paul Roberts), the vast majority of responders, both here and on the Book of Face, cried out for joy. We need more joy in our lives, you declared. So joy you will have!
In case you’re not quite following this, I’m about to offer my own particular take on the recent published work of that other Monk (Dr Christopher) of this website. He wrote two chapters, one about sex, one about joy, for a collection of essays about sense and feeling in early medieval England.
Joy of the feast
The Utrecht Psalter provides us with the bones of the representation of joy in the Psalms, but the Harley Psalter adds muscle to those bones.
After spending far too long explaining why the primary source of his study, the Harley Psalter, gives us an early medieval English, and enhanced, perspective of joy despite being an adaptation of the Utrecht Psalter, an earlier Carolingian work, he arrives at his first example of joy: feasting.
But before he gets to what I can only delicately describe as the more fulsome feasting scenes of the Harley Psalter, Dr Monk picks one that he describes as ‘understated’, though that is not the word that came to my mind when I observed the size of the Psalmist’s drinking vessel.
As you look at the detail of this scene, and indeed the other scenes of the Harley Psalter, you need to know that there is a game of visual clues happening right before your eyes, a kind of medieval manuscript charades.
Rather than trying to give you a whole narrative, the artist is in fact doing the equivalent of your absurd and frantic Christmas Day gesticulating in order for you to understand a word or two of the text of a particular verse in the Psalms.
This frequently means, as Dr Monk points out, that ‘the artwork is often somewhat removed from the immediate context of the prayers of King David’. So instead of getting something spiritual or devotional, artists throw in ‘elements of the everyday and aspects of material culture in order to capture the sense of a word or phrase’.
So despite the verses of Psalm 15 referring to exultant spiritual rejoicing over the constant presence of God, the artist shows our Psalmist figure enjoying the finer things in life: food and drink.
Dr Monk explains that exulto, the Latin word behind the word ‘rejoice’, has the sense of jumping or leaping about, of letting oneself go. Now, I don’t know about you, blessed ones, but the Psalmist, notwithstanding his leaning stance and wayward attire – someone, please fasten that ridiculous belt of his – is not exactly jumping for joy. However, it’s not him but his tongue that is doing the exultant rejoicing. Aha, I hear you cry!
It has to be said that the English artist gets this across rather wonderfully. He elongates the fingers which elegantly hold a morsel of food to his mouth and so it’s easy to imagine the taste buds of the Psalmist dancing about with sheer joy. The Utrecht Psalter artist, by contrast, makes it look like he’s sticking a date up his nose.
At the feast table
Dr Monk moves on to the feast table as symbol of joy but before jumping (always with joy) straight back into the Harley Psalter, he reminds us of the way the great epic poem Beowulf represents this vehicle for hell-, I mean, joy-raising.
Shall we listen in?
The thegn, he who bore in his hand the adorned ale-cup, observed his duty, poured out the bright sweet drink. For a while the poet sang loud in Heorot. There was the joy of the warriors, no small host of Danes and Weders.
Ah! Such a wondrous scene of joy: hulking warriors quenching their thirst after Beowulf, hulking supremo, single-handedly slayed that nasty monster Grendel; the honied tones of the poet on harp; the even more honied ale singing ever louder through its alluring brightness. There was the joy! Music and alcohol.
And thus King Hrothgar pronounced, “Go now to your seat, enjoy the delight of the feast!”. And this we shall do with the help of the Harley Psalter artist.
In this feast table scene, there’s almost a sensual overload of joy. Dr Monk notes, far right, the panem de terra ‘bread from the land’ on the table (ooh, the smell of fresh bread!) and the servant serving a beaker of vinum ‘wine’ that laetificat cor hominis ‘cheers the heart of man’ (Psalm 103:15).
Most striking is the man at the centre of the table having oil dribbled all over his head from what looks like an aurochs’ horn. Can’t think of anything more joyous, can you? If you’d rather have a shoulder massage, you need to get with the medieval spiritual programme. Just look at that man’s face! The artist has given him the serenest of smiles. He’s got it all, hasn’t he?
The horn of joy in archaeology
Link to licence for the above image.
At this point, Dr Monk goes off on an archaeological diversion, looking at the evidence for horns in early medieval England. So he finds the pair of silver-gilt mounts for a large pair of drinking horns (probably from aurochs), dated to the seventh century, recovered from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939 (image above).
And then there are the two olive-green glass horns from the seventh century, which were discovered in 1937 during a gravel digging in a cemetery at Rainham in Greater London, one of which is shown below.
Joy made exquisite! Olive-green glass horn, one of two. Seventh century. Image from Vera I. Evison, Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Glass in the British Museum (London, British Museum, 2008), Colour Plates, p. 135, Horn, cat. no. 47. Obtained from British Museum website (licence info below). Click image to go to source. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Link to licence for the above image
Unfortunately, nothing quite like these glass horns has survived from the period when the Harley Psalter was written and illuminated, that is, the first half of the eleventh century. So it is a moot point whether or not our Harley artist had come across such exquisite workmanship in his own lifetime. If like me, an impoverished, over-worked monk, a wooden cup was all he could look forward to as the vessel for imbibing his ale. Doesn’t seem quite as joyful somehow.
Horn of lusty joy
I must apologise unreservedly to all those of a delicate disposition, but, alas, I must finish today’s blog with Dr Monk’s inevitable lurch into lurid sensationalism. On mention of ‘horn’ he simply could not withhold recounting the rather unseemly dramatic skit of Ælfric Bata.
Bata, may the Lord have mercy, was an eleventh-century Benedictine schoolmaster – sadly, I knew him well – who took delight in inserting humorous spoofs into his Latin ‘conversations’ created for his students.
It has to be said, alas, that this particular spoof, which I hesitatingly provide below, is not exactly subtle in its – how shall I put it? – exploitation of youthful, masculine, sensual exuberance. Notwithstanding such folly, at least his students learned this uproarious paean to the horn (and whatever else this brings to certain filthy minds) in grammatically accurate Latin.
I want to drink from the horn. I ought to have the horn, to hold the horn. I’m called horn! Horn is my name! I want to live with the horn, to lie with the horn and sleep, to sail, ride, walk, work and play with the horn. All my kith and kin had horns and drank. And I want to die with the horn! Let them have the horn, those who are filling it and are about to give it to me! Now I have the horn. I’m drinking from the horn. Have every good thing, and let’s all be happy and drink from the horn!
To this I add nothing. I will not dignify it.
At least in the next post, part 2 of our venture into ‘Joy’, we return to the safer ground of the Harley Psalter artist who will be throwing clues our way concerning the joy of dance and music, and finally instruments of joy. Get your mind out of the gutter!