William Herebert was one of the first people to turn Latin hymns into English poetry

In early 14th-century Oxford, surrounded by some of the foremost theologians of medieval Europe, a Franciscan friar named William Herebert was writing a precious little collection of poems.

Herebert’s name is not well known today, but his poems, beautiful and distinctive in their own right, also represent an important milestone for English Catholicism: he was one of the first people to turn the Latin hymns of the Church into English poetry.

We don’t have many details about Herebert’s life, but he was probably born in Herefordshire around 1270. He was educated at the universities of Paris and Oxford, where his contemporaries included Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and in 1317 he became master of the Franciscan house in Oxford.

He was evidently a learned man, and his poems show that he gave careful thought to the difficult question of how best to express complex religious ideas in his own language.

Herebert’s poems survive in a manuscript book written in his own hand, noted down along with his Latin sermons and other texts useful for the medieval preacher. There are 23 short poems, arranged roughly according to the cycle of the liturgical year. Some are original compositions, but most are translations or reworkings of Latin or French texts, freely adapted into English. They include the first English verse translations of some well-known hymns, such as Veni Creator Spiritus and the Palm Sunday hymn All glory, laud and honour.

There’s a powerful poem based on the Good Friday Reproaches (beginning “My folk, what have I done to thee?”), as well as poems for Advent, Christmas and Lent, which Herebert calls “this holy fasting, forty days lasting”.

Perhaps Herebert’s most memorable poem is for Holy Week. It’s an imagined dialogue between angels and Christ after his Resurrection, and begins with the angels asking:

What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight,
With blodrede wede so grisliche ydight,
So faire ycointised, so semlich in sight,
So stifliche yongeth, so doughty a knight?

(What is he, this young lord, who cometh from the fight,/ With blood-red clothes so fearsomely arrayed?/ So fair a countenance, so beautiful in sight,/ So stoutly armed, so valiant a knight?)

Christ answers:

Ich hit am, Ich hit am, that ne speke bote right,
Chaunpioun to helen monkunde in fight.

(I am he, I am he, who speaks nothing but the right,/ Champion to save mankind in the fight.)

This dramatic poem goes on to describe Christ’s victory over death in swift-moving verse – just listen to how effective the rhymes are in the extract above, with all six lines rhyming on the same sound.

The basis for this poem is a passage from Isaiah used in the liturgy of Holy Week. But the image of Christ as a knight, blood-stained but triumphant, is Herebert’s own addition. He imagines Christ as a hero of medieval romance, endangering his own life to fight for humanity.

Most of Herebert’s poems are gentler than this, particularly those addressed to the Virgin. His “Hail, Lady, sea-star bright” is an exquisite translation of the hymn Ave Maris Stella, appealing to Mary: “Guilty men’s bonds unbind; bring light to them that be blind.”

In another poem he tenderly explores the family relationship between himself, Mary and Christ, which gives him the confidence to pray: “Thou my sister and mother, and thy son my brother; who should then dread?”

Translating poetry is a difficult skill to master, but Herebert excelled at it. His translations are skilful and confident, managing to balance poetic fluency with fidelity to the meaning of the original texts. Like many early medieval translators, Herebert preferred to use English-derived vocabulary to express theological concepts, rather than Latinate words: “forspeaker” for “advocate”, “wright” for “creator”. This gives his poetry a directness and clarity which still speaks to the heart. Despite the depth of learning that lies behind his writing, his poems have the beauty of simplicity.

Although many of them are based on hymns, Herebert’s poems were not meant to be sung. Some may have been intended for private meditation and devotional reading, but most were probably for use in Herebert’s preaching. Medieval preachers often included short English verses in their sermons, on the principle that memorable little poems would lodge in the minds of their hearers.

This interest in vernacular poetry means that some of the most important collections of medieval English poems and songs were compiled by friars like Herebert – an invaluable contribution to the history of English literature which is often forgotten today.

Herebert wanted his congregation to understand the hymns of the Church in their own language, to hear and remember the meaning of these enduring texts – some of them the same hymns congregations will be hearing this Holy Week, 700 years after Herebert was writing.

This article first appeared in the March 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here