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”.
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