Sunday, 26 December 2010

St Stephen's Day

SAINT STEPHEN was a clerk
In King Herod’s hall,
And servéd him of bread and cloth
As every king befall.

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

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

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

‘What aileth thee, Stephen?
What is thee befall?
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 Bethlehem born
Is better than we all.’—

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

‘Lacketh me neither gold ne fee
Ne none rich weed;
There is a child in Bethlehem 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.

‘Risit up, my tormentors,
By two and all by one,
And leadit Stephen out of this town,
And stonit him with stone.’

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

I am not really one for saints' days and the like, but I am rather fond of this 14th Century poem that presents an entirely unbiblical version of the legend of St Stephen. The unknown author makes the story more accessible to his readers by depicting Stephen as a medieval page in Herod's castle. However the prophetic element of the biblical story remains and 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, with the paradox that the divine King does not possess the wordly pomp that Herod has, but offers, as Stephen knows, riches that Herod cannot match. Also evident is the  idea that following Christ is a form of madness to wordly minds, Stephen is asked if he is "wode" (mad) or "ginst to brede" (rave.) Following Christ is also a renunciation, Stephen apparently has everything he needs supplied by Herod, and involves sacrifice.
It is worth noting that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by feast of martyrdom and violence, St Stephen's day being one and Holy Innocents another. Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following. Stephen is the first martyr, he gives and does not count the cost and so  St Stephen's eve is, "on Christe's own day."

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