Out of Time, But Not Out of Tune

We should listen to the voices of the past, for they may surprise us with their relevance.

A medieval astrologer, Bavarian,  15th century © akg-images.

A few months before the first lockdown I was browsing through a book I’ve often read before. It’s a collection of poems by the 15th-century friar James Ryman, who wrote a large number of English carols and hymn translations. It includes poems for all seasons of the year, so I dip into it from time to time and usually find something interesting to write about.

On this occasion one text caught my eye: a translation of a medieval Latin hymn, Stella caeli extirpavit. It’s not a hymn for a particular season, but for a particular kind of crisis: plague. Addressed to the Virgin Mary, it asks that, since her child ended the plague of sin, her prayers may help to end that which attacks the body. In line with medieval thinking, it sees sickness as originating in the alignment of the stars, so appeals for Mary’s help as ‘star of heaven’: she is imagined as a good star of peace and health who can restrain the ‘war and wrath’ of stars causing plague on earth.

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