Wednesday Sep. 28, 2016

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Poem of the One World

The text of today’s poem is not available online.

“Poem of the One World” by Mary Oliver from A Thousand Mornings. © The Penguin Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

William, Duke of Normandy, landed on England’s shores 950 years ago today (1066).

Edward the Confessor was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, but he had close ties with the continent: his mother was Norman, and he had spent many years in exile in Normandy. Edward had no heirs, and had likely named William — who was his first cousin, once removed — his successor in 1051. But Edward also liked to dangle the succession in front of other nobles to strengthen political alliances. The last man he promised it to was Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex and the richest, most powerful man in England. Even though Harold had publicly sworn to uphold William’s claim a few years before, he was elected by the Anglo-Saxon witanagemot, or high council, and crowned after Edward’s death in January 1066. Naturally, all the other people who felt they had been promised the crown disagreed. Harold’s brother Tostig, who had been exiled, joined forces with the king of Norway to invade the north of England. King Harold’s forces were depleted by the end of the summer, both because they were running out of supplies, and because the peasants were needed to bring in the fall harvest. When Harold led his army to Yorkshire to fight Tostig’s invasion, the south was ripe for the picking.

William of Normandy, meanwhile, had been raising support on the continent. The pope, as well as the Norman aristocracy, backed his claim to the English throne. With a force of thousands of cavalry, infantry, and archers, he crossed the English Channel and landed at Pevensey, in Sussex. From there, he went straight to Hastings, where he began construction on a castle and waited for Harold to return from the north. Harold and his infantry arrived in Hastings on October 13, and the battle began the next day. Harold’s men were well trained and the Normans didn’t make much progress breaking through their shieldwall at first. When the rumors starting flying that William had been killed, many Norman troops broke ranks and retreated, until William took off his helmet, showed them he was still alive, and rallied them. It was the death of Harold — traditionally believed to be by an arrow through the eye — that ultimately led to the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon army and ushered in a new era for England.

Battles continued for the next several weeks, as William made his way to London. He negotiated with various powerful Saxons as he went, offering positions in exchange for their support. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066, although he ruled in absentia for most of his reign. He largely replaced the English aristocracy and clergy with Norman ones; he retained the judicial system and the governmental structure set up by the Anglo-Saxons, but gave the offices to Normans. The vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons was relegated to the commoners, as Latin and then French became the official languages of the law, the royal court, and the government. At first, the Norman nobility never really bothered to learn Saxon English, and the result was a class distinction in the use of the languages. For instance, “cows,” “pigs,” and “sheep” were the names for the livestock that the Saxon lower classes raised on the farms. “Beef,” “pork,” and “mutton” all come from the French-speaking Norman nobility, who were served those same animals on a platter. Eventually — mostly through intermarriage — the two languages blended and became the “English” that we speak today.

In about 1085, near the end of his reign, William commissioned a survey of all the lands and holdings in England and parts of Wales. It came to be known as the Domesday Book, and it’s the earliest existing public record in England.

Today is the feast day for Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, best known from the Christmas carol that bears his name, “Good King Wenceslaus,” who was born in Bohemia in the year 907.

Wenceslaus’s father had been raised in a Christian household; his mother, Dragomir, was from a clan of pagan Slavs, but had been baptized at the time of her marriage. When Wenceslaus was 13, his father died. Wenceslaus inherited his place as Duke of Bohemia, and Wenceslaus’s grandmother, Ludmilla, who would become a saint herself, and Dragomir fought for control of the boy. By some accounts, Dragomir had Ludmilla killed and then, once again in charge of Wenceslaus and therefore in control of the duchy as his regent, set about trying to convert him and the public to her old, pagan religion.

At 18, Wenceslaus fully took his place as Duke of Bohemia and had his mother exiled. He held his seat for just 10 years, until his younger brother plotted his end and hired three friends to murder Wenceslaus on his way to church.

Wenceslaus was said to have had a kindly, giving nature, and those aspects of his personality are memorialized in the story of his carol, when the good king wanders out into a freezing winter night, bringing gifts of food and warmth and wine to those with none, pressing into the snow footprints that radiated back the heat of his goodness. Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and the brewers of beer, and it is said that he and an army of his knights sleep under the mountain Blaník, waiting to rise in the darkest of times, to save the Czech people from ruin.

Today is the birthday of the British novelist and translator Edith Pargeter (books by this author), born in Shropshire (1913). She never attended college and began writing while working as a chemist’s assistant in the years leading up to World War II. She served with distinction in the Women’s Royal Navy Service (the WRENS) and was awarded the British Empire Medal for her service. During these years, Pargeter published a flurry of novels, including Ordinary People (1941) and She Goes to War (1942), stunning critics with her detailed knowledge of the technology and geography of combat.

She met soldiers from Czechoslovakia while stationed in Liverpool, and she soon developed a passion for the country. She became an expert in the Czech language, first learning on “Teach Yourself” 78 rpm records. In 1949, she wrote a popular book on her travels there, The Coast of Bohemia, and personally translated over a dozen works by the country’s leading writers, including Joseph Bor’s tale of the Verdi concert at Auschwitz, The Terezín Requiem (1963). She said, “[I] feel myself in a sense Czech, with all their hopes and needs.” She was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal in 1968 for her work on behalf of literature.

In 1953, Pargeter first tried her hand at mystery writing with her short story “Fallen into the Pit,” but it was the introduction of her character Brother Cadfael in A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) that Pargeter found her true calling. Cadfael was a medieval Sherlock Holmes of sorts, and from his Shrewsbury Abbey, he unraveled mysteries and performed early forensics. While her contemporaries were still enamored with the Victorian Era, Pargeter set her book back 700 years earlier in the bloody era of the Middle Ages. She rarely looked back from the 12th century as she followed this Benedictine sleuth through 20 more novels, including One Corpse Too Many (1979), The Pilgrim of Hate (1984), and The Holy Thief (1992). All centered on Shrewsbury, these “mystoricals,” as they came to be called, were so popular that they created a whole tourist industry in the area, earning it the tag “Brother Cadfael country.”

Pargeter was celebrated for her reason and pragmatic charm. At the age of 83, when her leg had to be amputated, she wrote in a newsletter that she wouldn’t miss it a bit, “after the hell it caused me,” prompting The Guardian to remember her in their 1995 memorial as “one tough old bird.”

It’s the birthday of British author and journalist Simon Winchester (1944) (books by this author), born in London. Winchester is best known for his nonfiction book The Professor and the Madman (1998), about an American scholar, a murderer, and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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