I’ve just read a book set in the 13th century where neither the feisty heroine (headless on the cover, donchaknow) nor her lover nor her horrible husband nor any other character ever goes to church. Never a priest wanders into the story, never a bell rings, never a new cathedral appears on the skyline. Don’t get me wrong – it was exceptionally-well written and a gripping read. It was just that something was missing, like when you suddenly realise that, in the soaps, no one ever watches TV. Good stories but true to life? No…
Sarah Johnson once said that what she appreciated about my work was the large part religion plays in it. But how can it be otherwise? To be authentic, you not only need to imagine the religious life of the times, but to make sure it’s the appropriate form of it. For instance – and apologies for stating the obvious – until the 16th century, all western Christians were Roman Catholic. And a Roman Catholic isn’t just a Protestant in a hat. If we’re not born RC, but our characters are, we have to do some work of the imagination.
This is Christmas week and we are celebrating a great Victorian festival and the annual cull of ugly trees initiated by Prince Albert. Was there Christmas before Santa? Oh yes, of course, but to get a flavour of it, listen to medieval carols (great programme about them by Howard Goodall last night). It was a feast, one of the great festivals of Mary and usually called not Christmas but ‘the Nativity’. Yes, it coincides with Solstice and represents the rebirth of Light, but our medieval forefathers may not have seen it that way, not if they lived in cities; such pagan things were folk memories from the ancient past, kept alive in the country by customs the origins of which, over time, were forgotten.
To get a flavour of medieval Christmas, deck your halls, slaughter your pig, mull some cider, wassail the orchard and reflect on the Madonna, close to her term but with nowhere to rest in Bethlehem.
A new drama began this evening on BBC at 7pm called ‘The Nativity’. I felt disinclined to watch it, presuming it would be a ‘modern take’ with Mary the single mum-to-be desperate to marry, you know the story, but then I heard the scriptwriter interviewed on the radio, talking about the depth of his research and the effect writing the story had on him (planting the seeds of faith into an agnostic heart) and so I watched it and wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was enchanted. Yes, I could pick a few holes in it, but it was such a treat having a nativity play for adults, with wise men and shepherds, that I’ve decided not to mention the few errors spotted, like the Angel Gabriel not having wings. I mean, duh…. Apart from that, and some Englishmen playing Moslems playing Babylonians, the research seemed first rate. I shall certainly be watching for the rest of the week.
And now for those allergic to religious devotion, go and partake of mince pies. For the rest, read on, for in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, we hear the genuine voice of a 12th century Christian:
Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we
made in your image, conform ourselves to it.
In our own strength
we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder
nor is it fitting for us to try.
But Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love
Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)