Friday 24 June 2011

Who are the virtuous poor? Northumbrian shepherds?


Reading the medieval poem Piers Plowman by William Langland brings me up against the Christian conviction that it is easier for The Virtuous Poor to achieve salvation than the Rich.

Langland - at various times and with varying conviction - asserts that the simple, hard-working Christian plowman (i.e peasant) has a special 'pardon' from God which enables him to be saved; while the hazards of luxury corrupt many more powerful, wealthier and prestigious individual.


But who are the modern virtuous poor?

The first thing to be said is that there probably are not many of them - certainly no a large class of people analogous to the medieval peasants.

And the people who spring to mind as the modern poor are more akin to the assorted pleasure-seekers, loudmouths, brawlers, drunkards and fornicators depicted by Langland as the dregs of the Middle Ages.

The mainstream modern 'poor' are perhaps akin to the idle vagrants who Langland argued should be forced to work by the lash of starvation!

(And yet there are those who regard Christianity as soft!)


One group of people who strike me as akin to the virtuous poor are the Northumbrian shepherds who I used to see at country shows, involved in the competitions for best sheep.

My observations were superficial, but they were a quietly impressive bunch.

In the first place they were indeed quiet - men of few words, minimal movements, modest demeanor.

(When a shepherd won first prize for his sheep, this would be acknowledged by - at most - a barely-perceptible nod. Yet they might have put in many dozens of hours of work in preparing and displaying that sheep.)

And when a shepherd did speak it was brief and to the point; their rural dialects (from both sides of the border of England and Scotland) were intrinsically musical, their words lyrical: they were naturally poetic both in terms of what they said and how they said it.


Well, all this may be wishful thinking.

But recall that the best British folk poetry is to be found in the ballads from this region, and that the very first named English poet was a northern shepherd: Caedmon, as told by The Venerable Bede:


[Caedmon] was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house.

Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: 'Caedmon, sing me something.'

Then he answered and said: 'I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.'

Again he said, he who was speaking with him: 'Nevertheless, you must sing.'

Then he said: 'What must I sing?'

Said he: 'Sing to me of the first Creation.'

When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:


Nu we sculon herigean heofonrices weard
(Now we must praise the Protector of the heavenly kingdom)

meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc
(the might of the Measurer and His mind's purpose)

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
(the work of the Father of Glory, as He for each of the wonders)

ece drihten, or onstealde
(the eternal Lord, established a beginning)

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
(He shaped first for the sons of the Earth)

heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend
(heaven as a roof, the Holy Maker)

þa middangeard moncynnes weard
(then the Middle-World, mankind's Guardian)

ece drihten, æfter teode
(the eternal Lord, made afterwards)

firum foldan, frea ælmihtig
(solid ground for men, the almighty Lord)

Note: þ is called 'thorn' and ð is called 'eth' - and they are used for the various sounds made by modern 'th'.


Then he arose from that sleep, and all of those (songs) which he sang while sleeping he had fast in his memory, and he soon added in the same manner to those words many words of songs worthy of God.

Then in the morning he came to the town-reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him which gift did he bring, and he directly lead him to the abbess and made it known and declared to her.

Then she ordered all of the most learnèd men and scholars to assemble, and to those who were present commanded him to tell of that dream and sing that song, so that it might be determined by the judgement of all of them: what it was and whence it had come.

Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God himself a heavenly gift had been given.



Gyan said...

To whom much is given, much is expected.

CS Lewis has observed a man trained to be cruel from a young age say for example in SS, even a apparently small act of kindness
may count for a great deal with God than for people that are to eye habitually more kind

JP said...

For the poor to be virtuous in the West these days, they would have to resist not merely the many temptations of a vulgar popular culture but also the bribes that the government offers, using money stolen from others, in exchange for the poor man's vote. Few have such strength of will.

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thursday said...

As that link I posted in an earlier post shows (see here, liberal morality appears to be the spontaneous morality of the rich and comfortable, and by historical standards almost everyone in the West is extremely rich. All of which seems to dovetail with what the Bible says about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Liberal morality doesn't appear to be just the fruit of elite manipulation, though that hasn't helped. It is genuinely and spontaneously popular.

The Crow said...

I have only known one shepherd, and your description fits him perfectly. Shropshire, it was, on the Powys border. I shall always remember him.
Admirable, in the quietest of ways.
His very presence made me smile.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - decadence is indeed a frequent product of civilization - but explicit moral and aesthetic inversion, supported by blanket propaganda and reversal of traditional laws... now that is something new.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - so it isn't just me... At the very least it is a folie a deux!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Gyan/ JP - my previous comment in reply was too open to misreading, so I deleted it.

I think an important distinction is between sinning - which is universal and invevitable - and *propagandizing* in favour of sin and creating laws and rules that encourage sin and punish virtue: which is a particular feature of the privileged (especially Leftists) in modern society.

Sin is forgiven if repented, but it is not enough to avoid sin oneself - it is sinful to encourage sin in others, and this must be repented also.

Few modern mainstream intellectuals are innocent of the sin of promotion of sin - it is almost a career requirement.

(I speak from personal experience of being, in a small way, a modern mainstream intellectual - the internet has many examples of the kind of stuff I mean, written by me.)

Brett Stevens said...

When I think of the virtuous poor, I think of many of the teachers I had as a child: living in apartments, driving ancient cars, hanging out with their books and grading papers late into the night.

They've changed teaching since then so that it's now some kind of industry, but at that point, it was an honorable profession that got respect from the middle classes.