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.

This is a hymn written in the shadow of the Black Death. I liked Ryman’s version, but when I first read it – back in December 2019 – a hymn about plague seemed nothing more than a historical curiosity. I didn’t write about it. Who would be interested in reading a prayer against the plague? What meaning could it have for a 21st-century audience?

Then the pandemic struck. All of a sudden many historical texts about plague and pestilence took on new significance; words I had heard many times before came home to me in a different way. I remembered Ryman’s poem, especially a line which asks for deliverance from a plague that ‘dimmeth us by sharp stroke of death’ – a resonant phrase, which suggests that times of common sickness ‘dim’ us, cast a dark shadow over our lives.

Suddenly, plague was relevant. Historians are always encouraged to think about how what we do can be relevant to the present; we are supposed to demonstrate that the past can offer answers to the questions of today, or that it reflects back our preoccupations and the obsessions of our own time. We are told to look in the past for figures who were ‘ahead of their time’, honorary moderns worthy of attention because they’re just like us. The corollary is that voices that seem to belong solely to another age are readily dismissed, easily shouted down when the arguments of the present rage so much more loudly.

If this medieval hymn has anything to offer to the pandemic-weary world of today, though, it’s not a voice that sounds like ours. It might have become relevant overnight when our common life was suddenly dimmed by a new shadow of sickness, but it is still of its time: the product of 15th-century science and piety and distinctly medieval in how it combines these two ways of thinking. It has no answers to the questions of 2021; it only asks the same questions in a different form. It’s an appeal for help, an acknowledgement of powerlessness; it turns to the heavens because there are no answers to be found on earth.

The pandemic has been a forcible reminder of mortality. It has revealed how vulnerable our society is to disruption and shown us, in case we had forgotten, that there are limits to what technology and science can control. We may not today try to cure plague with help from the stars, but many of the ways in which our frightened society has responded to the pandemic will surely in hindsight come to seem equally ineffectual.

We have lived for many months under the shadow of death and the angry and frenzied debates of the past year have not offered much in the way of serious reflection to help us cope with that reality. That’s where ancient texts about plague and sickness can be useful. They give expression to fears which have never gone away, even if the modern world has forgotten how to speak of them.

One reason not to narrow down the parameters of the history we study – stripping away whatever doesn’t seem relevant right now – is that we don’t know what might be relevant again tomorrow. We need to keep listening to voices from the past, however out of tune they may seem with the present day, because we cannot know who in the future may need to hear them.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk