By David Clement-Davies
“The time is out of joint.” Hamlet
Whatever side you are on in the Brexit agony, perhaps there is another way of seeing things too, highlighted by a rapidly approaching celebration next month, St Lucy’s Day, depending on if and when you actually celebrate it. It’s long been argued here that Shakespeare’s age represented a sea change in ideas, especially for England, perhaps even some kind of shift in human consciousness. Perhaps only equalled by what is happening now, a mere four or five hundred years later, a pin-prick in Geological time. Because of the explosion of Printing in Europe, seeing the dissemination of something like 6 Million printed books by 1500, equivalent to the number of books hand made in the past 15 centuries, along with penny pamphlets, and vital maps rearranging the World and knowledge, depending on how things were being discovered. Then with the rise of Protestantism and Henry VIII’s Reformation and split from Rome, the true start of a modern Capitalist system, so much centred on London. The dawn of the modern, Capitalist world, that so defines us now. Represented by Joint Stock ventures, reflected by new theatrical companies too, stocks and shares, the creation of a Tudor navy, Merchant Adventurers and the formation of Globally expansionist but essentially private Companies, like the East India Company . Which would also create private armies too, though in the name of the Crown, and by 1607 had established its first fort outpost in Madras, bristling with cannon. Of course our major Protestant allies by then, The Dutch, were much at work too, hence that race for the Americas, beyond the fight with Spain, and New York once being called New Amsterdam. While if Endomol or Euromillions concern you, plantings in the New World where engineered as early as 1611 with public ‘Lotteries’. Today’s sea change and equivalent in both possibility and threat though would be the Internet, which has reeked such havoc in the publishing and bookshop trades, online lives lived against the new map of hyperspace, Globalisation, and for the UK the trauma of maintaining an identity within or outside the European system, perhaps reflective of the old Catholic, Rome-centred world.
If that is a little simplistic, the equivalent sense of trauma is certainly not. Many have argued that Shakespeare’s plays so often attempt to heal a profound emotional dislocation going on in England then, both intellectual and religious, or in our terms perhaps ‘spiritual’ , if you are not an Atheist. Like Henry V, if not using primarily Catholic language, appealing to the troops before Agincourt by thrilling reference to “St Crispin’s Day”, the feast of those twin saints “Crispin Crispianus”, patron saints of shoemakers, if kit is all, and in one of the most rousing patriotic speeches and calls to arms ever penned. There are many examples of a tryst with a changing world and sensibility, but the most obvious is Hamlet. That troubled Prince of Northern European and by then Protestant Denmark crying “The Time is Out of Joint, Oh Cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right“, in his metaphysical anguish. Of course the time is out of joint for idealistic Hamlet for many reasons, not least the appearance of a ghost he is not sure he believes in, his father’s murder and what his duty is to do about it. It resulted in what the World considers, when talking about it, as the very greatest tragedy.
But by 1587 the time was very literally out of joint with the Continent in Elizabethan England, because of the Papal Bull Intergravissimus. Which introduced the Gregorian Calendar across Catholic Europe, as opposed to the old Julian Calendar, used in Britain until 1750. It’s importance is no mere historical foot note, because it must have been as significant in terms of attempted systemisation as leaving the Gold Standard, matching weights and measures, linking rail and road networks or Decimalisation. It is very possible too that the Papacy issued it in that year as a specific forerunner to trying to re-assert authority over England with Spain’s thwarted Armada invasion of 1588.
Before Brexiteers or Non-believers carp that everything that emanates from Brussels or Europe though is some kind of enemy plot, the Gregorian Calendar charting our Solar orbit and correcting annually for inaccuracies, is more accurate and more scientific than the Julian, and the one the West uses universally today. In that sense England and other protestant countries were simply wrong and remained so for nearly 200 years. Yet something else was simultaneously taking hold, the dominance of a Meridian line and Greenwich Mean Time, centred at Greenwich in London, which was by no means a given and only established as a now universal ‘Time and place Zero’ because of the success of British Naval and then Imperial expansion. Other claimed meridians have included Rome, Washington, Paris and Jerusalem and of course the Meridian point was essential to recording Longitudes at sea and therefore travel, exploration and mapping The Globe.
So though, because of dual Western calendars, in terms of dates and festivals an actual time slip had begun with now Protestant England and the Catholic Continent, that can produce errors in the records too, which would eventually produce a mis-match of between eight and tens days. Just as London street and place names were rapidly changed from old Catholic locae, as would happen during the French Revolution. Does this have any special resonance or significance though, except that shared holidays like Christmas would not be celebrated on the same day, and Continental Saint’s Feast days were supressed, as the machine of working Capitalism engaged? For a long while in England too a New Year was not celebrated on December 31st, but on March 25th, the Festival of the Annunciation of the Virgin’s pregnancy, Lady Day, and also the day contracts, leases and debts fell due. Of course that average human incubation span takes you straight to Christmas Day, December 25th. Well, it was two years work looking for Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund in London that led to a link with the tavern in Southwark where he died, or was staying before his death in 1607, The Vine, and a Church called St Margaret’s. The little Norman Church stood on Long Southwark, today’s Borough High Street, more or less, and very literally that ‘Canterbury Road’ of Chaucer’s famous pilgrims, mouthing so marvellously and often very cynically in Middle English. Because the real Tabard inn, where it all starts, was right opposite. The Church is no longer there, but today is the site of the old town hall, at a building a bit like a miniature Flat-Iron building in New York. Now occupied in part by the Slug and Lettuce bar chain, in one of history’s lovely ironies.
On the right of the current War memorial on Southwark’s Borough High Street is The Slug and Lettuce bar. A plaque on the side of the building is all that commemorates the site of St Margaret’s Church
Vanished St Margaret’s Norman Church had the most astonishing history on that both real and fictional “Canterbury Road”. It was the place where the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor William Waynflete, who founded Magdalene College Oxford, met the rebel Jack Cade, after the battle of London Bridge, who had camped in the White Hart inn just down from the Tabard. Cade, that rather dubious figure in the second of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, whose men of course marched to The London Stone and executed several nobles, was double crossed later, tracked down and his dead body brought back to London in a cart, with his head in his lap. Waynflete was acting during the regency of the young Henry VI, but in 1460 that very troubled Monarch granted rights by a Charter at Westminster to the wardens of the Southwark church to form a little Fraternity, called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption. So allowing them to wear a livery, collect alms and above all to buy land and property in Southwark. They started investing in two taverns especially, along the riverside so associated with brothels, gambling, bear and bull baiting and of course the rise of the new theatres, the Haxe or Axe, mis-logged in the London Metropolitan archives as the Har-, and The Vine. They were also paying ‘purse money’ up to the later much criticised Bishops of Winchester. Especially Henry Beaufort, who had been blamed for betraying England by ceding Anjou and Maine to France, though of course he was in fact Henri de Beaufort, in a world intimately entwined with France and Europe.
The very Catholic Church would be supressed at Henry’s Reformation, which also attacked and dissolved the Monasteries and Chantries, in one of the greatest land grabs in history. I’m yet to decipher the scrawled Latin documents, ‘Testi 1-5’, that suggest the five wardens, among them Watermen and Joiners, were accused of nefarious dealings, just as one record of the Axe in Henry VI’s day refers to an argument with a Flemish lady, in an area of many Dutch incomers at the southern gate to then walled London, over London bridge. Just too as local St Thomas’s hospital was shut for being a ‘bawdy house’ and the Stewes or brothels, protected since the 12th Century, were thrown down by Royal proclamation and ‘a blast of the trumpet’. Not for long. That Church became a little Compter prison and court though, where the man who built The Swan Theatre and Lord of The Manor in Paris Gardens, Sir Francis Langely, was brought up for not paying his dues, or keeping the ways clean. It would later be The King’s Head tavern, ‘in the middle of the King’s highway’ under James but it also stood right at St Margaret’s Cross where that World War II soldier now stands, and the famous, rowdy and often riotous Southwark Fair began. Later immortalised in Hogarth’s famous painting, which I think may well depict the claimed St George’s Church just down the road but St Margaret’s, and certainly making much of a reference to Henry VI.
The hand written Church records are the most fascinating little journey down a river of time, giving insights into its swelling ambitions, new roofing, and a new grave yard, in the then very intimate style of dating, taking you from a said year in the reigns of Harry V, Harry VI, Richard III, to both Henrys and it’s fall. That year-of-monarch dating rather echoes the intimacy of a closeness to both Crown and individuals in a far smaller world echoed in Shakespeare’s Crispin Day speech, but ran in parallel to the Anno Domini system, like 1460. But just in tiny details there too opens an emotional and imaginative doorway straight back to Chaucer and those Canterbury tales, on that part real and part fictive Canterbury Road. One I think in a sense was dammed up both by Reformation and Shakespeare’s transcendent genius, in also so rewriting the English language. Because the church documents record money being paid to ‘players’ too there, since before the time of Henry VI, on both St Margaret’s and St Lucy’s dayes: The type of travelling players performing Mystery and Miracle plays, before thy were banned by Reformation, or became professional companies with the rise of permanent and secular London theatre houses by 1550. St Margaret’s day was the Catholic festival of the Church’s Patron Saint, but it was St Lucy’s Day that caught my attention.
In today’s Catholic Calendar the Feast of Santa Lucia falls on December 13th, supposedly celebrating a 3rd Century Christian Martyr who brought food, via candlelight, to Roman Christians hiding in the catacombs. Or so the story goes. But take into account that 8-10 day shift with the change from the Julian and Gregorian calendars and where does that festival of lights, much celebrated in both Italy but also Northern Scandinavian countries by maidens wearing wreaths of burning candles, somewhat witch like, take you back (or forwards) to? December 21-22 and The Winter Solstice, the day, coming up in barely a month, that the Earth begins to turn in its orbit back towards the Sun. Just as the Feast of Christmas on December 25th was in the Ancient Roman Calendar the Feast of Sol Invictus, and effectively the birth and rebirth of the Sun.
Can this throw any light though on our current re or mis-alignments or Brexit fears and woes? Well, from my viewpoint, just as Shakespeare’s power springs so much from nature, essentially ‘pagan’ festivals bound inextricably with the seasons, and in human storytelling celebrating, as in so many faiths, the triumph of light over darkness and the rebirth of the Earth, could only underline both an ancient link with Europe, as Shakespeare and Renaissance London certainly had, but now the whole Planet. So the disaster of ignoring the warnings of Climate Change, and the dramatic need for Environmental protections and initiatives, like the Paris Accord, abandoned by Trump and so little talked about by Brexiteers, very keen on Fracking in the UK too. It is a major reason for my opposing Brexit, yet still questioning much about Europe and the way its individual member countries do things. As I would argue that though Shakespeare did give a changing England the most extraordinary language of National identity, the cannon is far more complex than that, as is the poet playwright’s journey towards Truth, meaning and above all dramatic effect. Before the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg dared to summon his name to push a Cameron towards a Referendum he assumed he’d win. “The time is out of joint” said Hamlet, “Oh brave, new World, that hath such people in it” declares Miranda in The Tempest, as does every new generation perhaps. Yet what ‘modern’ Super Capitalist or ‘brave, New World’ can the Planet afford now? Perhaps we have forgotten though that in both that storytelling language of Faiths, and in the attempt at absolute Scientific Truths, like dates and times and spacetimes, both are also kinds of languages, that so often collide when they think they are right alone, or are even saying the same thing. If you are trying to have a conversation then, at least learn to hear what others are trying to say, before you dismiss it as right or wrong, in perhaps a never ending journey down a part real and always part fictional road.
As for the Solstice, or St Lucy’s Day, the fact they once talked to each other, trying to find a road, or a diverging path, is proved beyond doubt by another famous London inhabitant of Shakespeare’s day, the soldier, Dean of St Paul’s, father of 11, and Metaphysical poet John Donne. Because he titles his “Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day“, partly writing in mourning for the death of his favourite daughter Lucy, as “Being the shortest day of the year“. Namely not December 13th of the current Catholic Calendar, but The Winter Solstice. It itself is the most beautiful, heart breaking act of anguish, combing faith with astrology, alchemy and an emerging scientific language too, to try and find confirmation and hope in great darkness, above all in the search for some higher love.
‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it
is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.
But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.