Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas Poems (12): Saint Stephen was a clerk

An icon of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and the martyr

Patrick Comerford

I have chosen a curious mediaeval poem, ‘Saint Stephen was a clerk,’ as my Christmas poem for this morning [26 December 2011]. I find it sad that the use of the name “Boxing Day” is creeping into frequent use in Ireland. Traditionally in the Church Calendar, this day is Saint Stephen’s Day.

Saint Stephen was one of the first seven deacons and was the first martyr (see Acts 6-7). In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Lion’s Gate is also called Saint Stephen’s Gate, after the tradition that Saint Stephen was stoned to death there, although it probably took place at the Damascus Gate.

Saint Stephen’s Day on 26 December, Holy Innocents’ Day on 28 December, and the commemoration of Thomas à Beckett on 29 December remind us that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by martyrdom and violence.

In the interlude in TS Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Beckett preaches his Christmas sermon shortly before his murder. He explains that the “peace to men of good will” that the angels announced at the first Christmas was “not peace as the world gives,” but, to the disciples, “torture, imprisonment, disappointment … [and] death by martyrdom.” He links the birth at Christmas with the death of martyrdom, asking: “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.”

Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following Christ. As the popular expression says: “No Cross, No Crown.”

Among the early users of this phrase was William Penn, founder of the Quaker colony that became Pennsylvania, in a tract first published in London in 1669. How well it encapsulates the story of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, whose name in Greek, Στέφανος (Stephanos) means crown.

In the Eastern Church, Saint Stephen the Protomartyr is commemorated on 27 December, the Third Day of the Nativity.

In many parts of Ireland, it was traditional on Saint Stephen’s Day, 26 December, for the “Wren Boys” to go from house to house with a holly bush dressed with ribbons, singing traditional, seasonal songs, including this song:

The Wran, the Wran,
The King of Birds.
Saint Stephen’s morn
Was caught in the furze.
We hunted him up
And we hunted him down
And in the wood
We knocked him down.


Usually, they were given a small amount of money, and the evening concluded in the local pub.

There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that Saint Stephen hid from his enemies in a bush but was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like Saint Stephen, is then hunted down and stoned to death.

Another legend claims that during the Viking raids in the eighth century, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were surrounding a Viking camp at night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the beat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.

In England, today is known as Boxing Day, because this was the day when gifts, often money, were given to tradesmen, employees and the poor and needy. But in the past, 26 December was closely associated with Saint Stephen, and the “feast of Stephen” is mentioned in the English carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas.’

John Keble (1792-1866), who tried to provide a poem, hymn, carol or thoughts in verse for every Sunday and holy day throughout the year in The Christian Year (1827), published this poem:

The interior of Saint Stephen’s Church, Mount Street Crescent, Dublin

Saint Stephen’s Day:

He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7: 55)

As rays around the source of light
Stream upward ere he glow in sight,
And watching by his future flight
Set the clear heavens on fire;
So on the King of Martyrs wait
Three chosen bands, in royal state,
And all earth owns, of good and great,
Is gather’d in that choir.

One presses on, and welcomes death:
One calmly yields his willing breath,
Nor slow, nor hurrying, but in faith
Content to die or live:
And some, the darlings of their Lord,
Play smiling with the flame and sword,
And, ere they speak, to His sure word
Unconscious witness give.

Foremost and nearest to His throne,
By perfect robes of triumph known,
And likest Him in look and tone,
The holy Stephen kneels,
With steadfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye,
Which, like a fading lamp, flash’d high,
Seeing what death conceals.

Well might you guess what vision bright
Was present to his raptured sight,
E’en as reflected streams of light
Their solar source betray –
The glory which our God surrounds,
The Son of Man, the atoning wounds –
He sees them all; and earth’s dull bounds
Are melting fast away.

He sees them all – no other view
Could stamp the Saviour’s likeness true,
Or with His love so deep embrue
Man’s sullen heart and gross –
“Jesus, do Thou my soul receive:
Jesu, do Thou my foes forgive;”
He who would learn that prayer must live
Under the holy Cross.

He, though he seem on earth to move,
Must glide in air like gentle dove,
From yon unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath;
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace,
Martyr all o’er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus’ death.

Later, John Mason Neale (1818-1866) published the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ in 1853, although he may have written this carol some time earlier, for he included the legend of Saint Wenceslas in his Deeds of Faith in 1849.

An early English poem

However, an earlier English poem associated with Saint Stephen’s Day, ‘Saint Stephen was a clerk,’ dates from the reign of Henry VI, and may have its roots in legends from the beginning of the 13th century.

The poem, in an odd anachronism, portrays Saint Stephen as a servant in the court of King Herod in Jerusalem who is martyred during the reign of Herod the day after Christ’s birth.

Saint Stephen sees the Star of Bethlehem and goes to Herod asking to leave his service. When Herod asks him whether he lacks anything, Stephen admits he lacks nothing in the palace. However, the child born in Bethlehem is better than that. Herod says it is as true as if the cock cooked for his supper would crow again. Immediately the cock crows does, and Herod has Stephen stoned to death.

This carol dates from at least the beginning of the 15th century, but is based on a much older legend from a more remote period. The story of the cock that returns to life from the plate or the pot was originally told in the stories of other saints, including Saint James, Saint Peter, or the Virgin Mary.

The carol was printed in 1856 by Thomas Wright for the Warton Club, founded by Wright, James Halliwell, Robert Bell, and others. Five years later, the music historian William Henry Husk (1814-1887), in Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868), said this poem was found in the British Museum in a manuscript dating from the reign of Henry VI.

The poem was published in 1861 A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861), where it was attributed to Joshua Sylvester. There was a little-known Renaissance poet named Joshua Sylvester (ca 1563-1618), who was born in Southampton. But Hugh Keyte, in the New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: OUP, 1992), believes that in this case Joshua Sylvester is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Husk and William Sandys (1792-1874), who was the first to publish such classics as ‘The First Noel,’ ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen,’ ‘I saw three ships’ and ‘Hark the herald angels sing.’

A mediaeval tale

The oldest version of this story, dating from about 1200, tells of two friends sitting down to dinner in Bologna, and one asked the other to carve the cock to see whether he could put it together again. The cock sprang up, clapped his wings and crowed, scattering the sauce over the two friends, infecting them with leprosy until their dying days. The same legend is told about the innocence of falsely accused individuals, and is found in the legends of Spain, Brittany, Italy, and other countries.

It is not clear, though, when this legend was first associated with Saint Stephen. The boar’s head, which he brings to King Herod’s table in the poem, may have earlier pagan winter associations in northern Europe, and there are Danish versions of this ballad.

The 14th or 15th century version of the poem presents an entirely unbiblical version of the life of Saint Stephen, in which the martyr becomes a mediaeval page in King Herod’s castle. However the prophetic element of the biblical story remains and Saint Stephen’s reiteration of the phrase, “there is a child in Bethlehem born/ is better than we all,” shows the single-minded nature of his message.

The theme of kingship is present in the poem too, with the paradox that the divine king does not possess the same worldly pomp as Herod, but offers, as Stephen knows, riches that Herod can never match.

We are told that following Christ is a form of madness to worldly minds: Saint Stephen is asked if he is “wode” (mad) or “ginst to brede” (given to raving). In Chaucer, we find the line: “For veray wo out of his wit he braide.”

Following Christ is also a renunciation of worldly ways; King Herod apparently supplies everything Saint Stephen needs, including food, drink and clothing (“weede”), so following Christ involves sacrifice.

In this poem, Saint Stephen retains his place as the first martyr, despite reacsting the sequence of events surrounding his martyrdom. He gives and does not count the cost, and so, we are told, in the final line, why Saint Stephen’s eve is “on Christe’s own day.”

A similar miracle of reconstruction occurs in the legends of Saint Nicholas: Three boys were returning home from school for the holidays and had stopped at an inn overnight. The innkeeper, thinking to profit from this, took the boys, killed them, cut up their bodies, and put the parts into pickling casks. The parents of the boys were worried and appealed to Saint Nicholas who searched the road until he came to the inn. When confronted by the Bishop of Myra, the innkeeper admitted his sin. With a wave of his sceptre, Nicholas caused the boys to be reassembled and resurrected from the casks.

Saint Stephen was a clerk

Saint Stephen was a clerk
In King Herod’s hall,
And servéd him of bread and cloth
As every king befalle.

Stephen out of kitchen came
With boar’s head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stande.

He cast adown the boar’s head
And went into the hall:
‘I forsake thee, Herod,
And thy werkés all.

‘I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy werkés all,
There is a child in Bethlehem born
Is better than we all.’

‘What aileth thee, Stephen?
What is thee befalle?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink
In King Herod’s hall?’

‘Lacketh me neither meat ne drink
In King Herod’s hall;
There is a child in Bethlem born
Is better than we all.’—

‘What aileth thee, Stephen?
Art wode or thou ’ginnest to brede?
Lacketh thee either gold or fee,
Or any rich weede?’

‘Lacketh me neither gold ne fee
Ne none rich weede;
There is a child in Bethlem born
Shall helpen us at our need.’

‘That is all so sooth, Stephen,
All so sooth, I-wys,
As this capon crowé shall
That li’th here in my dish.’

That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall,
The capon crew “Christus natus est
Among the lordés all.

‘Riseth up, my tormentors,
By two, and all by one,
And leadeth Stephen out of this town,
And stoneth him with stone.’

Tooken they Stephen
And stoned him in the way;
And therefore is his even
On Christe’s own day.

Tomorrow: ‘Earth cannot bar flame from ascending’ by Christina Rossetti.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin