Lesson #406: Beguines

I’m reading a fascinating book right now — Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.* It’s not my normal fare, but it sounded really interesting, especially as an unmarried woman, so I checked it out of library. My parking fines at work.** Anyway, historically, independent women are not as rare as we imagine they were. In America, unmarried women are largely responsible for: the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, labour reforms, and the gay rights movement.

One of the things I’ve learned in reading this book is that, in medieval Europe, women who were unmarriageable for whatever reason — age, ability, lack of dowry, lack of suitable husband, being widowed by the Crusades — didn’t necessarily have to go into convents. For unmarried women who did not wish to enter the convent (and effectively marry Jesus), there was the beguinage.

A beguinage was a house or houses or neighbourhood of unmarried women who were committed to a life of Christian service and were free to leave for any reason they wished. It was expected that they would remain unmarried in their lives as beguines, and that their time as beguines would be devoted to service to the poor, a trade such as textile making, and/or teaching. However, they did not take vows of chastity, poverty or lifetime devotion and were not required to liquidate any assets they had upon entering the beguinage.

These orders emerged in Northern Europe in the 12th century and were most popular in The Netherlands and Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries. Belgium saw a resurgence in popularity of beguinages in the 17th century, but their numbers never reached that of the medieval period. The last beguine, who was been born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and served in Belgium died in 2013.

The Medieval Church alternated between a laissez faire attitude toward beguines and outright denouncing them as heretical.*** Not taking vows and giving everything they owned to the Church seems to have been a sticking point.

There’s not a whole lot of information available online about beguines and beguinages, but see here, here, and here.

*This line made my cousin in a major Canadian city and me laugh, “92% of college girls surveyed in the 1920s said they had participated in sexual, below-the-neck fondling, and that, by this time, “young middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with women of their own class than with prostitutes.”” We spent a good five minutes discussing what above-the-neck fondling was. The best we could come up with was a wet willy and a nose boop.

**Although, since I split with my ex, I haven’t actually *had* a parking fine because I’m spending significantly less time in his parking gestapo neighbourhood.

***This is pretty rich considering the medieval Papacy was a revolving door of simony, murder, illegitimate children, power hunger that would put Game of Thrones to shame, and literally disinterring a deceased Pope to put his corpse on trial. As previously noted, I *love* the medieval Papacy because it’s completely bonkers.


Lesson #353: Judas Iscariot, Pilate, Herod, and Jesus’ Speared Side

So I randomly learned that John — which was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written and the one that isn’t synoptic — is the only of the Canonical gospels to make mention of the Roman soldier spearing Jesus on the cross.* Considering the fact that Easter is only two weeks away, I decided to do a textual comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion in each of the four gospels to see what else is dissimilar; it was a pretty fun exercise.

Here’s the list:

– Matthew 27:5 is the only gospel reference to Judas Iscariot’s death. (The only other reference in the Bible is Acts 1:18.)**

– Matthew 27:19 is the only reference to what we call “Pilate’s Dream.” Except that it wasn’t his dream, it was his wife’s.

– Matthew 27:24 is the only reference to Pilate washing his hands of the whole thing.***

– That said, Matthew is also the only gospel in which Pilate doesn’t point out to the rabble that Jesus has committed no crime.

– Mark 15:1 is the only reference in the story of Jesus’ death to mention the Sanhedrin by name.

– Mark 15:25 is the only reference to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion — 9am (though all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke —  note that from noon until 3, the sky got dark)

– Luke 23:8-12 is the only appearance Herod makes in this part of the Jesus story.

– Luke is the only gospel not to mention Pilate’s choice to flog Jesus.

– Luke is also the only one not to make note of the robe (which in Mark and John is described as purple, but in Matthew is scarlet) and crown of thorns.

– John is all over the effing place (because John isn’t one of the synoptic gospels). John goes off-script. A lot.

– In addition to the spear to the side bit, John is the only one to say that Jesus carried his own cross through the city**** (the synoptic gospels name a man called Simon and note he’s from Cyrene. Mark names his sons for reasons I assume are to distinguish this particular Simon from other guys from Cyrene who bore the same name.) He’s also the only one to make reference to prophecies and broken bones.

-NONE of the gospels give any count on the lashes, although there is all sorts of evidence in Biblical and Talmudic law that would make 39 the fair assumption. And in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he had been flogged on several occasions, receiving 40 lashes minus 1 (the reason for this — if you can’t be bothered to read the link above on Biblical/Talmudic law — is that 40 lashes was the legal limit and, in order to avoid going above that, even by accident, the standard was 39). However…as he was in Pilate’s (and, therefore, Rome’s) custody, Jesus was likely flogged by the Romans, who were not likely held to the religious standard that the Jews maintained. So who knows, really?

– Matthew and Mark are the only gospels where Jesus asks, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”; Luke is the only one in which he says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”; John is the only one where he says, “It is finished.”

– Matthew and Mark identify two Marys at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. John notes that Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, his mother’s sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas were in attendance. Luke doesn’t pick anyone out specifically, instead calling them “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” What’s interesting to me here is that this ties back to the lesson from a couple months ago about the adelphoi and the desposyni.

In the entire story of Jesus’ crucifixion, there are only a few things that are the same across the board. They are: Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the discontent of the Sanhedrin (and the people), the release of Barabbas, that Golgotha (which is only expressly named in Matthew and Mark, though all four refer to it as “the Skull”) was the site of the crucifixion, that the soldiers drew lots for Jesus’ clothing, that there was a plaque on the cross that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews”, that Jesus was offered wine vinegar on a sponge, and that he died. So basically, the story we know as one story, with Judas’ death, Herod, Pilate washing his hands of the whole event, the crown of thorns, the 39 lashes, and our friend Simon the crucifer, is actually a composite of all four gospels, some textual exegesis, and a likely Q source.

So after all of this, I decided to see what the Gnostic gospels have to say. Unfortunately, none of them, complete (Philip, Thomas, — which most scholars acknowledge predates the four Canonical gospels — and Truth) or otherwise (Hebrews, Mary and Judas), tell the story of Jesus’ death. You have no idea how disappointing that was to discover.

Anyway, it actually makes quite a lot of sense that Matthew and Mark are so similar; they’re the two earliest — Mark first, then Matthew. And it makes sense that John would be so dissimilar because it’s the non-synoptic gospel. But I think this is a really interesting exercise in how storytelling works. I’m particularly intrigued by Herod’s late addition to the party. But really, what becomes very, very clear, especially when considering the additions Matthew and Luke make to Mark, is that the scholars’ belief that there’s a Q Source from which Matthew and Luke draw, in addition to Mark, isn’t a crackpot theory. And that aspect actually illustrates exactly where my problem lies in viewing the Bible as a historical document.

Anyway, that was fun! I’ve never actually sat down and done a textual comparison with Biblical text before…

*John 19:34

**This one’s cheating; I know this offhand. I’ve done a lot of research into Judas Iscariot over my many years of academia…I think he’s the most interesting character in Christianity, not because of his position at the time, but because of his image after the fact.

***It shouldn’t surprise anyone with half a brain who was raised in the Christian tradition that this is where we get the idiom “to wash [one’s] hands of”.

****John 19:17


Lesson #348: Simon Magus and Goethe’s Faust

As you may have picked up at some point (possibly because I expressly said it), many of my problems with religion lie in the idea that you’re supposed to believe a whole slew of things for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. But sometimes, there is evidence, which is why, whatever trouble I may have with faith, I have never fully abandoned religion as a subject to learn.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Goethe’s story Faust (and if you’re not, I’d ask what library-less island you’ve been living on your whole life) at least enough to understand that it’s a story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly riches.*

Here’s an interesting note: the character of Faust is based on Simon Magus, who apparently referred to himself as Faustus (the favoured one). Here’s a more interesting note if you’ve been following this blog at all: Simon Magus is the man for whom simony is named.

Biblically, Simon shows up in the eighth chapter of Acts. He’s portrayed as a wizard (okay, a sorcerer, but that makes me think of Mickey Mouse and sentient brooms) who has fooled people into believing in his power. He follows Philip around for a bit before running into Peter and John in Samaria and attempting to buy aspostle-ship.** For their part, those two chastise Simon rather severely before heading back to Jerusalem.

Here’s the thing…Simon is not a one-off Biblical character who shows up in order to act out some sort of morality play. He’s kind of everywhere and kind of a big deal. Irenaeus (whom I know best from a grad school paper I wrote on the canonical portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the early Church), Hippolytus, and our friend Epiphanius (last seen discrediting the position of the desposyni), among others, all discuss Simon as a heretic. ***

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus suggests that after his failed purchase, Simon made a bit of a habit of presenting himself as God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in different places throughout the Near East and Rome (which I’m sure went over spectacularly). He notes, in Book I, Chapter 23, section 2, that Simon is the one “from whom all the heresies took their origin.” Simon hung out with a prostitute from Tyre called Helen, whom he claimed — as God, one expects — was the first creation of his mind and it was she who created the world.  In a fun twist I didn’t see coming, Irenaeus explicitly says of Helen that she transmigrated between bodies including occupying, for a time, “Helen, on whose account the Trojan War arose.”****

This is not the only reference to Simon’s Helen and Menelaeus/Paris’ Helen being one and the same. Tertullianus says in De Anima that, “she became also that Helen who proved so fatal to Priam.” (see Section II, point iv. of the G. R. S. Mead’s essay, “Simon Magus: An Essay on the Founder of Simonianism Based on the Ancient Sources”, below)

Fun fact while we’re on the subject, more or less, of Simon’s delusions of godliness, according to Justinus Martyr’s Apologia, he went to Rome in the time of Claudius (who was the fourth Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled between 41 and 54 BCE and whose name I can never hear without thinking “Mom, tell me more about Livia.” “She killed everybody off so her son Tiberius could inherit the throne. Just like Nixon.”) and was so convincing at being a God, the nebulous “they” erected a statue to him.

Anyway, on to Hippolytus. Hippolytus presents something of a rant against Simon Magus in Refutatio Omnium Haeresium. It’s a very philosophical rant on why Simon isn’g God, but it’s very “modern academic” in its approach, which amuses me. It’s a very well-structured argument, but it reads like a graduate paper. Hippolytus goes on at length about the metaphysical error in Simon’s understanding of God (and to some degree the tautological errors inherent in the magic). (see section II, point v. of the essay)

Epiphanius’ Contra Hæreses identifies Simon’s birthplace for us, Gittha. I don’t, however, seem to be able to find any record for where that was on a map apart from Samaria, which is like saying that a town is in Alberta and leaving it to you to figure out where, exactly. It turns out, though, that with a bit of digging I was able to find out that Gittha (or Gitta) was not popular among the orthodox Jews because it was a hotbed for healers and magicians.***** Anyway, to Epiphanius’ credit he mentioned that Gittha was a city during Simon’s time, but says that it “still exists as a village today”, which would have been sometime in the early to mid 4th century. The problem, if you can call it that, with Epiphanius’ accounts of Simon is that by the time he was writing, a whole slew of scholars had gone before him and he was essentially retelling their work for a newer audience.

All of the passages I’ve noted can be read in this excellent essay. Also, see Klauck’s Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles. Read basic background on Simon here.

*I’d encourage you to read it.

**Or at the very least the “ability” to impart the Holy Spirit to converts. Although what kept him from doing it without sanction, I don’t know.

***Simon also appears in the Apocryphal texts Acts of Peter and Epistle of the Apostles, which portray him as a sorcerer with the ability to levitate and fly. That’s really more Harry Potter than historical source, so there will be no discussion here

****This is also in Book 1, Chapter 23, section 2. See Section II, point ii. of the essay.

*****That link  has an interesting take on the attitude of the early Christian writers towards our mischievous friend, Simon, including that while none of the writers denied that any of the miracles he was performing were things that happened, they were pretty adamant that because these things could only be done through Jesus Christ, Simon was clearly a heretic. Solid, if imperfect, logic.  This position, incidentally, is supported by Klauck’s work.

Lesson #344: Clerical Celibacy

Don’t worry; I’m not here to argue for or against clerical celibacy, as it has absolutely no impact on my life. I am neither a male looking to enter the priesthood nor a Roman Catholic.

Today’s lesson came out of a fact I learned today about how Pope Pius II wrote the best-selling book of the 15th century; it’s a book of erotic fiction called The Tale of Two Lovers. This then made me wonder when, exactly, the Catholic Church made clerical celibacy a requirement, rather than an option. Because, even in the middle ages with fewer available literary choices than we have now, surely a priest with zero sexual experience won’t have the ability to write bestselling graphic eroticism.

And besides that, as I’ve touched on in previous lessons, more than one of the medieval Popes had children. They also did all manner of other totally awesome stuff; there is no soap opera better than the medieval Papacy! It’s all sorts of illegitimate children and imprisonment and simony and murder and exhumation for trial.

But it seems that the indoctrination of celibacy was already in place in the West by the time Leo I became Pope in the mid 5th century. The 33rd Canon of the 304 Synod of Elvira delivered the first edict on the subject and suggested that “bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”*

However, although it was the preferred state of those holding clerical positions, celibacy wasn’t compulsory until the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century. This edict on celibacy was a direct result of the “Rule of the Harlots,” the term given to the period between the ascension of Sergius III to the Papacy in 904 and the death of Gregory IV in 1048.** (I feel it should also be mentioned that the Gregorian reforms also eliminated simony. Presumably, Gregory VII didn’t need to say anything about murder and the exhumation of former Popes.)

So the answer to the question is the mid-11th century and Pius II was either writing outside of his experience or was practicing outside the faith.

For more see here, here, and here.

*Hilariously, the 35th Canon says that women should stay out of cemeteries at night because some of them “engage in wickeness rather than prayer.”

**There’s a very interesting article entitled Popes and Pornocrats that addresses this period that can be read here.


Lesson #337: Adelphoi, Desposyni, and Christianity

Autobiographical note: This is the most fun I’ve had doing research in a long while because it was the most challenging research I’ve done in a long while. The four hours it took me to get everything together and written (I don’t f**k around with my research) is time I rarely have to devote, but it’s a slow weekend in my world. This is also why yesterday’s post is as detailed as it is — though that took only half the time. 

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark acknowledge Jesus’ siblings. Four brothers by name, even. They’re called James, Joseph, Judas (or Jude depending on which version you’re reading), and Simon. They also make mention of at least two sisters, who aren’t named, but because the noun is plural, I’m sure you can do the (super basic) math.* 

If you never learned that in Sunday school, ever, that’s because modern Christianity sees the whole thing as a problem. Because Christianity on the whole likes to view Mary as pure as all get-out despite the fact that women of her time would never have had one kid and then been all, “yeah, that’s enough.”

There has been debate raging about the meaning of the word “brothers” in this context since pretty much the dawn of Christianity. Proponents of the perpetual virgin version of Mary — pretty much all of Christianity — choose to see this translation as a figurative association between Jesus and these four. Cousins, maybe.** Or brothers from another mother (literally…there’s discussion as to whether they might be Joseph’s children from a previous, completely unmentioned marriage). Or, you know, bros.

Here’s the problem with that argument: the Greek word from which we get the translation “brothers” is adelphoi, which literally means “from the same womb.”*** I’m not exactly sure how that gets misinterpreted because it’s pretty explicit.

Whatever the modern interpretation, early Christians didn’t doubt the consanguinity of Jesus’ brothers. The historian Josephus (who was Jewish, but that’s so very much not the point here) addresses James’ fate in Antiquities of the Jews. He notes in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1 that James, who was stoned to death, was “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”****

And they had a word for people who were Jesus’ blood relatives: desposyni, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The word was widespread enough in its use that the early third century historians Sextus Julius Africanus and Hegesippus both addressed the concept in their writing. Hegesippus’ work is mostly lost, but large portions are quoted in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiae. Book 3, chapter 20 makes reference to the grandsons of Judas, whom he calls a blood brother of Jesus. Julius Africanus’ work, which actually uses the word desposyni, is quoted in book 1, chapter 7 of the same Eusebius work. 

The concept of the adelphoi and desposyni fell out of favour by the time Third Synod of Carthage set the books of the Bible in 397, with help from major early Christian theologians like Hippolytus and Epiphanius, who held to the perpetual virgin doctrine that continues to exist today. There is, however, some scholarship that suggests that a meeting took place between Pope Sylvester I and Jewish Christian leaders in 318, wherein the Jewish Christian leaders, speaking on behalf of the desposyni, asked that the papacy a. recognize the bloodline of Jesus, b. make Jerusalem the mother church (and have the church’s money sent to Jerusalem), and c. revoke the authority of the Greek Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, and appoint desposynos bishops in their stead. Rome declined. This meeting is the last known communication between the Church and the desposyni.***** 

There is no doubt some political motivation in all of this. It’s unlikely that, with the papacy under Roman patronage by this time, the Church was ever going to agree to lose the money it was making in being the mother church and in being in control of bishopric appointments. And it’s not exactly good publicity to change your mind about the purity of your holiest saint. In canonizing the Bible not long after, Rome solidified its place as the power of Europe for the next 1125 years — until Martin Luther showed up and said “eine minuten, bitte” — and shaped the way modern Christianity believes without much question into the finer points. The Church, like every other ruling faction, became a political entity ahead of everything else. It just so happened their political interest was in saving souls. For money.******

And lest you think this is critical of Christianity, it is and it isn’t. I’ve long been critical of the unchecked political agency of the early and medieval Church. But I’m most impressed by people like priests and bishops, whose job it is to learn and know these things, but still manage to reconcile them with their faith (and then let me ask a million questions about it all like a petulant four-year-old who wants to know why she has to go to bed); it’s exactly these sorts of smaller details that, when taken as a collective, made me walk away from religion. As an academic, the whole notion of the Church saying, “just trust me!” without ever giving compelling evidence for why I should — especially when my scholastic motto is “sources or GTFO” — led to a wholesale mistrust in the fundamental tenets of the entire faith.

As an aside: There’s an interesting alternate history to be drawn if the mother church moves from Rome to Jerusalem.

*See here (verse 55) and here (verse 3)

**Unlikely. The Greek word for cousin is a distinct word, anepsios.

***The etymology of the word brother even identifies the as “Greek adelphos…meaning, specifically, “brother of the womb” or “brother by blood.”

****For the record, religious scholars agree that of the two references to Jesus in Josephus’ work (both in Antiquities of the Jews), this is the only one that is authentic. The reference in Book 18 to Jesus’ crucifixion is universally held to be a later addition by an outside source. For more on that, see Schrekenberg and Schubert’s Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature, Vol 1, Evans’ Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies, Wansbrough’s Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn’s Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1, Wells and Hoffman’s The Jesus Legend, and probably half a dozen others.

*****See Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church.

******See: tithing, which was required by law. And any number of shady practices employed by the medieval church to scare every last cent out of people in order to ensure their eternal salvation. But that fear-mongering and widespread abuse of power made the Church exorbitantly wealthy.

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.

Lesson #327: In the Bleak Midwinter

There are times I learn something and feel I should already have known it. This is one of those times.

I’m a notorious night owl, so there it is, 3:30 in the morning, and I have managed to get myself from an a cappella rendition of Life is a Highway in which the bass blew my mind* to a bunch of English choir boys singing Christmas carols. In four perfectly logical steps.**

Anyway, for those of you who didn’t grow up in the Anglican/Catholic tradition, there are two different versions of In the Bleak Midwinter. There’s the one I like and the one I don’t. Not that that’s particularly helpful to anyone. It’s not even particularly helpful to me. But…I do know which one I like when I hear it. I particularly like the tenor line. It turns out, the tune to the one I like was written by Gustav Holst. I really feel like at some point in my a. years of singing in the church choir when I was a kid and b. years of music education as a whole, I should have learned that.

Then again, the first time I heard the German national anthem, I was completely baffled because the tune is also the tune to the hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. At least that gap in my knowledge made some sense. And besides that, Haydn composed the tune to back a poem written to rival England’s God Save the King not to be an Anglican hymn.

Back to the topic at hand, I went and did some digging just to see what I could find, and it turns out that the hymn is a relatively new one. Holst composed the music in 1906 to accompany the 1872 poem In the Bleak Midwinter, which was written by Christina Rossetti. Her poem remains unchanged in the lyrics of the hymn.

For the record, my favourite Christmas carol is The Huron Carol, which really couldn’t be more Canadian of me.***

For more see here and here. To hear (the Holst version of) In the Bleak Midwinter sung by delightful English choir boys, see here — and see if you can pick out the tenor line…it’s the best part.

*see last night’s episode of The Sing-Off. Seriously, their bass hit a note I didn’t know was humanly possible (according to my piano, it’s a G#…two octaves below middle C) and turned me into a giggling pile of mush. Chicks dig the bass.

**I am nothing if not my mother’s daughter in my ability to get from one thing to another seemingly unrelated thing in fewer steps than should be possible. If you were wondering, it went: super bass, Avi Kaplan (who is amazing!), Pentatonix’s cover of O Holy Night, Cantique de Noel, In the Bleak Midwinter.

***In case you were wondering how a girl who has no faith (in the liturgical sense) can have favourite Christmas carols — or hymns/anthems at all — the Church has a lot of good music. And I’m partial to good music. Besides, you hear something for 18 years of your life, it tends to stick with you whether you believe the words or not. For example, John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth is one of my favourite pieces of choral music ever, and I can still sing it by heart.