Monday 12 November 2012

Arma Christi - Lancea

I’ve been working on a fourteenth century poem which I discover was a widely used devotional writing.

It intrigued me because it lies behind one of the features of the decoration of many churches today.  One quite often sees items associated with Jesus’ execution displayed on shields or carried by angels or both. There are late thirteenth century examples on St Hugh's shrine in Lincoln Cathedral.  I once posted two 1920s pictures of the dice used to gamble for Jesus’ cloak, one from St Michael’s and one from St Nicolas’.

These are ‘Arma Christi’ – the arms of Christ both in the sense of his ‘coat of arms’ and in the ironic sense of what he armed himself with on his journey to the cross.  It appears there were well established devotions related to gazing on these ‘symbols of the passion’. There are even ‘Arma Christi’ rolls which could be unrolled and held up so that the devotional poem could be read and the symbols seen.

So I bought a reproduction of the 1871 Early English Text Society volume which includes two versions of the poem and pictures, and which may have been a major influence on the revival of the use them in places like this parish fifty years later.

The verse about the spear reads

Lord, the spere so scharpe I-grownde
That in thyn herte made a wownde,
It quenchyth the synne that I have wrowt,
With alle myn harte fulle evle thowt,
And myn stowt pryd also,
And myn onbuxmnes ther-too.

‘Unbuxomness’ is a perhaps the only word which isn’t immediately clear. It appears that ‘buxom’ hadn’t yet acquired the later sense of comely, jolly, plump and vigorous. It still reflected the origin of the word as ‘like an archer’s bow’ - that is with the right amount of both strength and flexibility. The Shorter Oxford offers meek, gracious, obliging and kindly. So, for un-buxom, I’ve offered ‘unyielding’ in a modern English rendering

Lord, the spear so sharply ground
that in your heart made a wound
quenching the sin which I have wrought
by all my heart’s evil thought
and by my stout pride too
and by my unyieldingness also.

I played with each line to begin to develop a contemporary engagement with the text as

Sharpened spear,
weeping wound:
soak my stains;
lance my lewdness;
puncture my pride;
soften my stubbornness.

which might work better with lines re-ordered to

Sharpened spear,
lance my lewdness
and puncture my pride;
weeping wound,
soften my stubbornness
and soak away my stains.

The first illustration comes from a fourteenth century original via the 1871 book and shows both spear and wound. The second is a shield behind the altar at St Nicolas’ which shows both the spear and also the sponge on a stick held up for Jesus’ to drink from.

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