Thursday, 13 April 2017

'My folk, what have I done to thee?

'Popule meus', in a 13th-century manuscript, BL Add. 18031, f. 174

One of the most dramatic and powerful parts of the traditional Good Friday liturgy is the Improperia, the 'Reproaches' in which Christ is imagined speaking from the cross. Recalling numerous key events of Old Testament history, the text contrasts these moments of God's love and protection of his people with the suffering inflicted on him during his Passion. The Improperia are dramatic in every sense, adopting the voice of Christ as he reproaches his people and draws a series of contrasts between past and present: what he has done for mankind, contrasted with the pain they are now causing him to suffer. Here's the Latin text, and here's a recording of it being sung; in Latin and in translation it's been set by various composers, and this version is one familiar to me.

There are several medieval English translations of this text, which form a sub-genre of a very extensive tradition of poems in which Christ addresses mankind from the cross. ('Unkynde man, give heed to me' is a typical example of that genre.) Perhaps the most memorable of these appeals occurs in the middle of the dramatic re-enactment of the Crucifixion in the York Plays. In this play Christ speaks only twice, silent as he is nailed to the cross; but when he is lifted up he speaks a complete twelve-line verse, calling on 'Al men that walkis by waye or strete' to witness his suffering. In the streets of medieval York, where these plays were performed, these words would be spoken directly to the audience and passersby - just as in the Good Friday liturgy Christ's 'reproaches' are intended to transcend their historical context to speak to every congregation, every soul.

The following poetic translation of the Improperia is by William Herebert, and dates to the early 14th century. The poet-preacher John of Grimestone also wrote a version of this text a few decades later.

My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

For from Egypte ich ladde thee,
Thou me ledest to rode tree.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Thorou wyldernesse ich ladde thee,
And fourty yer bihedde thee,
And aungeles bred ich yaf to thee,
And into reste ich brouhte thee.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

What more shulde ich haven ydon
That thou ne havest nouth underfon?
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich thee fedde and shrudde thee,
And thou wyth eysyl drinkst to me
And wyth spere styngest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich Egypte beth for thee
And here tem yshlou for thee.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich delede the see for thee,
And dreynte Pharaon for thee,
And thou to princes sullest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

In bem of cloude ich ladde thee,
And to Pylat thou ledest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Wyth aungeles mete ich fedde thee,
And thou bufetest and scourgest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Of the ston ich dronk to thee,
And thou wyth galle drincst to me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Kynges of Chanaan ich for thee bet,
And thou betest myn heved wyth red.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich gaf thee croune of kynedom,
And thou me gyfst a croune of thorn.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich muchel worshype dede to the,
And thou me hongest on rode tree.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

BL Arundel 83, f. 116v (early 14th century)

Here's a (lightly) modernised version of Herebert's poem.

My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

For from Egypt I led thee;
Thou leadest me to rood-tree.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

Through the wilderness I led thee,
And forty years I cared for thee,
And angels' bread I gave to thee,
And into rest I brought thee.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

What more should I have done
That thou hast not underfon? [received]
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I thee fed and clothed thee,
And thou givest vinegar for drink to me
And with spear stingest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I Egypt scourged for thee
And their offspring slew for thee.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I divided the sea for thee,
And drowned Pharaoh for thee,
And thou to princes sellest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

With beam of cloud I led thee,
And to Pilate thou leadest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

With angels' meat I fed thee,
And thou buffetest and scourgest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

From the stone I gave drink to thee,
And thou with gall givest drink to me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

Kings of Canaan I for thee beat,
And thou beatest my head with a reed.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I gave thee a crown of kingdom [i.e. kingship],
And thou me givest a crown of thorn.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I great honour gave to thee,
And thou me hangest on rood-tree.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

As you can see, Herebert manages to make almost every line of his poem rhyme on either 'me' or 'thee', to highlight the simple but stark contrast which lies at the heart of this text: God's love and man's cruelty. This is a poetic device Herebert has taken from the refrain of the Latin text and carried through into the verses (which don't rhyme in the Latin):

Popule meus, quid feci tibi?
Aut in quo contristavi te?
Responde mihi.

Herebert makes several of his verses rhyme on these same pronouns and the same thematic contrast between the actions of Christ and 'his folk': mihi and tibi, me and thee. Since for Herebert 'I' would also be pronounced more like 'ee', the sound and contrast are there in the repeated refrain too: My folk, what habbe I do thee? Irony is the key to this poem, and it's all in those pronouns.

For another poem by William Herebert for Holy Week, see the wonderful 'What is he, this lordling, which cometh from the fight?'

1 comment:

David Wilson said...

Fascinated by the Greek and Latin being sung alternately. Was this common? And do the Impropreria then derive from Late Antiquity? Also the 2 choirs remind me of the wonderful description of the rededication of Ramsey abbey! Hope you Easter is a good one. D