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This blog post looks at how Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow was reused in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow is a common text in many introductory courses of Old English. It is found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), when he discusses how King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity in the year 627. In Bede’s story, one of Edwin’s counsellors compares the life of a pagan to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s warm hall. Here is the Old English version of the counsellor’s speech, from an 11th-century manuscript:
It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.’
Bede’s image is simple but effective: paganism, according to Bede, does not account for Creation or the Afterlife – the life of a pagan, therefore, resembles the flight of a sparrow through the king’s hall: it comes from the cold and dark winter, spends some brief time in the warm and pleasant hall and then it returns to the cold and dark winter. Since Christianity does give clarity about what came before and what came after, it must be better. Arguably, Bede is misrepresenting whatever pre-Christian faith Edwin of Northumbria and his counsellors adhered to, but that does not make the image less effective. Indeed, while Bede notes that the sparrow’s flight is over in the blink of an eye, Bede’s story reverberates until this present day.
William Wordsworth’s “Persuasion” (1822)
Bede’s parable of the sparrow was reiterated in sonnet-form by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), a series of 132 poems narrating the history of Christianity, from its arrival in Britain to Wordsworth’s own days. In Wordsworth’s sixteenth sonnet “Persuasion”, Bede’s sparrow represents the human soul:
Man’s life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!William Wordsworth, “Persuasion” (1822) – source
That—while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire—is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!
In Wordsworth’s version, the king’s warm hall represents the human body, while the sparrow is the human soul. This interpretation of the sparrow may well have been what Bede intended and, at any rate, has an analogue in Psalm 123:7 (“Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers”).
Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel” (1976-1981)
Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) put the image of Bede’s sparrow on its head in his monologue poem “Grendel”. In this poem, we get the monster Grendel’s pespective on the hall Heorot (the Old English poem Beowulf tells us that Grendel decided to attack the hall, because he was distraught by the noise of merry-making Danes in the hall). In contrast to the warmth and pleasantness that both Bede and Wordsworth ascribed to the hall, Morgan’s Grendel describes the hall as a horrible place that the sparrow is glad to leave:
Who would be a man? Who would be the winter sparrowA passage from Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel”
that flies at night by mistake into a lighted hall
and flutters the length of it in zigzag panic,
dazed and terrified by the heat and noise and smoke,
the drink-fumes and the oaths, the guttering flames,
feast-bones thrown to a snarl of wolfhounds,
flash of swords in sodden sorry quarrels,
till at last he sees the other door
and skims out in relief and joy
into the stormy dark?
Bede’s warm and cosy hall are nowehere to be seen in this version of the sparrow’s flight! In this passage, as elsewhere in Morgan’s poem, Grendel’s disgust over human society shines through. This bleak view of humanity may also explain the two opening lines of the poem: “It is being nearly human / gives me this spectacular darkness”.
Morgan was well acquainted with Old English poetry; he made a translation of the original Beowulf and also a number of poem collected under the heading “From the Anglo-Saxon” in his Dies Irae (1952).
Jeff Smith’s BONE (1991-2004)
I am a fan of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book saga BONE (1991-2004). The series has received multiple awards and was named one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time by TIME magazine, which described it as: “As sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier”.
Here is an image taken from the prequel volume Rose (2000-2002) and shows the ‘headmaster of the Venu’ (the hooded figure) explaining how ‘the dreaming’ (a sort of spirit world where everyone comes from and to which everyone must one day return) works.
In the BONE Companion (2016), Stephen Weiner explains that the dreaming is based on the Aboriginal concept of the ‘Dreamtime’. From the way the headmaster explains the concept, however, we can also see some influence from Bede! In the headmaster’s simile, the hall stands once more for human life and the cold outside of winter encompasses everything beyond this present life.
To conclude, while the sparrow in Bede’s imagination only spent a brief moment in the hall, Bede’s image has certainly stood the test of time!
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- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
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In this blog, I have occasionally noted how illustrated manuscripts resemble the comic books and graphic novels of this day and age (see here and here). In this post, I focus on the eighth-century Cuthwine, bishop of Dunwich, who appears to have had a taste for illustrated manuscripts: an Anglo-Saxon comic book collector!
Bishop Cuthwine of Dunwich and his illuminated manuscripts
Cuthwine was bishop of Dunwich somewhere between 716 and 731. Little is known about Cuthwine, apart from his interest in illuminated manuscripts. This interest is revealed by the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (d. 735) in a work entitled The Eight Questions; Bede suggests that he had seen an illuminated manuscript that Cuthwine had brought back from Rome. Bede brings up Cuthwine’s manuscript in reply to a question by the London priest Nothelm about what the Apostle Paul meant when he said “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty minus one” (2. Cor. 11:24):
What the Apostle says … signifies that he had been whipped by them five times, in such a way, however, that he was never beaten with forty lashes, but always with one less, or thirty-nine. … That it is to be understood in this way and was understood in this way by the ancients is also attested by the picture of the Apostle in the book which the most reverend and most learned Cuthwine, bishop of the East Angles, brought with him when he came from Rome to Britain, for that book all of his sufferings and labours were fully depicted in relation to the appropriate passages. (trans. Trent Foley & Holder 1999, p.151)
The book described by Bede has been identified as the De actibus apostolorum, a verse history of the Apostles by the sixth-century poet Arator. While this particular copy of Cuthwine’s has not survived, the name of this Anglo-Saxon bishop has been connected to another manuscript.
Cuthwine’s copy of the Carmen Paschale by Sedulius
Antwerp, Plantin-Moretus Museum, M 17.4 contains an illustrated versification of the life of Christ, known as the Carmen Paschale by the early fifth-century Roman poet Sedulius. According to art historian Alexander (1978, p. 83), the Antwerp manuscript represents a ninth-century Carolingian copy of an earlier Anglo-Saxon exemplar. It is possible that this Anglo-Saxon exemplar once belonged to Cuthwine, since the copiist of the Antwerp manuscript copied a colophon of another text in the manuscript, which mentions the name “CUĐUUINI”:
The fact that the Antwerp manuscript is based on an Anglo-Saxon exemplar coupled with Bede’s report on Cuthwine’s interest in illuminated manuscripts has led scholars to suggest that the exemplar of this manuscript once belonged to this Anglo-Saxon bishop (e.g. Lapidge 2006, pp. 26-27).
As I will reveal at the end of the blog post, the Antwerp manuscript may have something peculiar in common with the manuscript described by Bede as having belonged to Cuthwine, aside from just being illustrated. But let’s look at some of the illustrations of the Carmen Paschale first.
The Carmen Paschale: The Bible as an epic poem
Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale attempts to rewrite the Gospels in the style of classical epics, such as Vergil’s Eneid. Apart from the story of Christ, the poem also contains various references to Old Testament stories. To give you an idea of the nature of the poem, here is the text that accompanies an image of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Antwerp manuscript:
The enfeebled uterus of old Sarah was already withering,
Worn out by long inactivity, and the chilly blood,
Moribund in her ancient body, was denying her a child.
Her husband was even older than she, when the insides of her cold belly
Began to swell to give new birth, and the trembling mother,
Grown heavy in her freezing womb, produced hope for a fertile race
And held a late-born son up to her breasts.
His father brought him to God to sacrifice, but instead, a sacred ram
Was slaughtered, and the boy’s throat was spared right at the altar. (bk. I, ll. 107-115, trans. Springer 2013)
Sedulius’s style has been described as bombastic, and rightly so, judging by his description of Sarah’s withered uterus!
Jonah and the whale
The illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript generally illustrate the text of the poem well, as the two illustrations of the story of Jonah and the whale illustrate:
Jonah fell off a ship and was swallowed up by a voracious whale.
Even in the sea he did not get wet, for he was in a living tomb,
So that he would not perish. Safe in the wild beast’s belly,
He was its charge, not its prey, and over the great expanse of the sea,
Rowed by an unfriendly oarsman, he arrived in unfamiliar lands. (bk. I, ll. 192-196, trans. Springer 2013)
Whipped saints and martyred babies: Cuthwine’s taste for gore
If the illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript resemble those of the Anglo-Saxon exemplar (and Alexander 1978 seems to think so), we might attribute to Cuthwine a certain taste for blood and gore. Both the Antwerp manuscript and Cuthwine’s manuscript described by Bede contained illustrations with a lot of graphic detail. Bede describes the scene of St. Paul’s flogging in Cuthwine’s manuscript as follows:
This passage was there depicted in such a way that it was as if the Apostle were lying naked, lacerated by whips and drenched with tears. Now above him there was standing a torturer having in his hand a whip divided into four parts, but one of the strings is retained in his hand, and only the remaining three are left loose for beating. Wherein the intention of the painter is easily apparent, that the reason he was prepared to scourge him with three strings was so that he might complete the number of thirty-nine lashes.(trans. Trent Foley & Holder, p. 151)
Apparently, the artist of Cuthwine’s book had not left much to the imagination. Much the same can be said for the image in the Antwerp manuscript, depicting the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, massacred by Herod):
Indeed, the image of warriors cutting babies in half, a baby impaled on a spear and the attempts of their mothers to embrace the dead babies is gruesome by any account and well accompanies Sedulius’s outrage over the massacre:
And he kept on dashing to the ground and slaying masses of infants,
Fierce in his unwarranted murder. For what crime did this innocent
Multitude have to perish? Why did those who had barely begun to live
Already deserve to die? There was rage in the bloodthirsty king,
Not reason. Killing them at their first cries and daring to
Perpetrate wickednesses beyond number, he slaughtered boys
By the thousands and gave a single lament to many mothers.
This one tore out her mangled hair from her bare scalp.
That one scored her cheeks. Another beat her bared breast with fists.
One unhappy mother (now a mother no longer!)
Bereft, pressed her breasts to her son’s cold mouth-in vain.
You butcher! What did you feel then as you watched such a sight? (bk. II, ll. 116-127, trans. Springer 2013)
When one compares Sedulius’s text to the illustration, it is interesting to note that much of the brutality in the Antwerp manuscript illustration was added by the artist. Sedulius focuses on the reaction of the mothers and nowhere mentions babies being cut in half or impaled on spears. Speculatively, we might imagine the artist of the original, Anglo-Saxon exemplar of the Antwerp manuscript adding these gory details, since he knew Bishop Cuthwine’s taste for such scenes. I wonder what Cuthwine felt when he “watched such a sight”….
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- J.J.G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts: 6th to the 9th Century (London, 1978)
- Bede, A Biblical Miscellany, trans. W. Trent Foley & A. G. Holder (Liverpool, 1999)
- Lapidge, M. The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006)
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)