The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary – University of Copenhagen

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13 October 2017

The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Miracle of the Week

This week's miracle is found in many different traditions and name drops both William the Bastard/Conqueror and Denmark. As if that weren't enough, it also tells you why you should remember to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Hversu til kom conceptio (How did the [Feast of the] Conception originate) marks the beginning of this week's miracle. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

This miracle, presumed to be English in origin, is found in many traditions, such as Latin, French and English. In Old Norse-Icelandic it is also found in two other manuscripts, AM 240 III fol., where only the beginning is preserved, and Stockholm perg. 4:to nr 11. Unger prints both versions in his Maríu saga (pp. 1030-32).

It is part of Mussafia’s TS-series, which, like the HM-series mentioned in connection with our third Miracle of the Week, comprises 17 miracles and derives its name from the designations for the first and last stories in the series, Toledo and Samstag (Saturday); it is the 15th miracle in the series.

R.W. Southern, in his investigation of the TS-series, found that the Elphinus named in the story, also known as Elsinus, Helisius and Aelsi (his English name), was indeed Abbot of Ramsey at the time of the Norman Conquest. He was still Abbot there at the time of his death in 1088.

The miracle is found on pp. 303-306 in the second volume of our manuscript. The Master Class encoded the text using TEI-conformant XML, which can be displayed in a variety of ways, for example as a facsimile transcription (see it here: page 1 and page 2), i.e. a letter-by-letter transcription of the text in the manuscript with no changes, a diplomatic transcription (see it here), i.e. a letter-by-letter transcription of the text with a few palaeographic features and the expansion of abbreviations, and finally a normalized transcription, i.e. a transcription in which the orthography has been normalized with no scribal errors or abbreviations. The normalized version is as follows:  The rubric reads “Hversu til kom conceptio” (How did the [Feast of the] Conception originate).

Á þeim tíma, sem Vilhjálmr bastarðr, hertogi Normannie, lagði undir sik England, var sá ábóti, er Elphinus hét, í kirkju heilags Augustini biskups á Englandi, í hverri sjálfr hann ok hans eptirkomendr biskuparnir hvíla. Sem Danir heyra, at England er unnit af Normannis, búa þeir sín vápn ok herskap, at þeir fari til Englands ok ræki þá á brott. En er hinn máttugasti Nordmanna hertogi Vilhjálmr heyrir þat, sendir hann fyrrsagðan ábóta Elphinum í Danmǫrk, at hann forvitnaðisk hvort sǫnn væri þessi hersaga. Ábótinn kemr nú í Danmǫrk at gera konungsins ørendi, ok fœrir Danakonungi þær gjafir, er Vilhjálmr konungr sendi honum. Sem hann hefir langan tíma þar verit, þiggr hann heimleyfi af konunginum, ok stígr á skip með sínum kompánum. Þá er þeir voru komnir mjǫk langt í haf, kemr at þeim svo mikill stormr, at þeir sjá sér enga von lífs. Í þvílíkum háska snerusk þeir þangat til trausts, sem jafnan er hjálpin búin, biðjandi svo til Guðs: ”Heyr hinn mildasti ok hinn máttugasti Guð! Miskunna oss í þessum háska, at eigi fáim vér eilífa pínu, drekktir með stormi ok bylgjum sjávarins.” Sem þeir tala þessa hluti ok marga aðra þessum líka, sjá þeir einn mann, í biskups skrúði með mítru, við skipit, ok kallar til sín Elphinum ábóta, ok talar til hans þessum orðum: ”Ef þú girnisk at forðask sjávarháska, ok koma heill heim í þitt land, skaltu játa mér í Guðs vitni, at þú skalt halda hátíðliga getnaðardag móður Krists.” Ábótinn svarar: ”Hversu skal ek þat gera, eða á hverjum degi?” Biskupinn svarar: ”Sétta idus decembris skaltu fyrrsagða hátid halda, ok predika ok eggja á í ǫllum stǫðum hvat er þú orkar, at þessi dagr sé af ǫllum haldinn.” Ábótinn spyrr: ”Hvílíkt tíðahald skal þá hafa, ok á hvern hátt?” Hann segir: ”Allt þat sem segisk ok syngsk á hennar burðardegi skal ok segjast á hennar getnaðardegi, ok svo sem þar stendr nativitas, skal hér segjask conceptio á þessum degi.” Sem ábótinn hefir heyrt þessi orð, hverfr sá, sem honum vitraðisk, en veðrit minkar. Bœta þeir reiða sinn ok fá síðan hægan byr, allt þar til, er þeir taka England. Hann gerði kunniga þá hluti, sem hann hafði heyrt ok séð, ǫllum þeim, er hann mátti; ok skipaði í Ramensiensis kirkju hverri, er hann styrði, at þessi fyrrsǫgð hátíð skyldi á hverju ári haldask hátíðliga sétta idus decembris. Hélt hann þat sama með sǫnnum góðvilja alla daga sins lífs. Ǫllum þeim, er fyrrsagðan dag halda, Guði til heiðrs ok hans móður, veittisk af syni þeirrar sǫmu jungfrú, himinríkis dróttningar Marie, friðr ok heilsa, en eftir þetta líf eilíf hvíld í himinríki. Þat láti sér sóma at veita sá, er lifir ok ríkir, einn Guð í þrenningu, amen.

Which in a relatively literal translation reads: 

At the time when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, conquered England, was there an abbot who was called Elphinus at the church of Saint Augustinus, Bishop of England, in which he himself and all subsequent bishops rest. When the Danes heard that England had been won by the Normans, they prepared their weapons and war equipment, intending to sail to England and drive them out. But when William, the mightiest duke of the Normans, heard of this, he sent the aforementioned Abbot Elphinus to Denmark to find out if this report of war was true. The abbot then came to Denmark to do the king’s bidding and to bring the king of the Danes the presents that King William had sent him. When he had dwelled there a long while, he got leave to return home from the king, and boarded his ship with his companions. When they had come a long way from shore there broke over them such a great storm that they could see no hope for their lives. In this peril, they turned for protection to where there is always help to be had, praying to God thusly: “Hear, mildest and mightiest God! Be merciful on us in this peril, so that we do not incur eternal torment, drowned by storm and the surge of the sea.” When they had said these and many similar things they saw next to the ship a man in a bishop’s habit and with a mitre. And he called for Abbot Elphinus and said to him these words: “If you desire to escape the peril of the sea and to return safely home to your country, you must promise me with God as your witness that you will celebrate the day of the conception of Christ’s mother.” The abbot replied: “How shall I do that, and on which day?” The bishop answered: “On the sixth idus decembris [i.e. 8th December] shall you celebrate this holiday; and preach and encourage all to do so in every place you can, so that this day is celebrated by everyone.” The abbot asked: “What kind of celebration shall be held, and in what manner?” He said: “All that which is said and sung on her day of birth shall also be said on the day of her conception. And wherever it is written nativitas there shall one say conceptio instead on this day.” When the abbot had heard these words, the one who had revealed himself to him disappeared, and the weather calmed. They repaired their rigging, and soon after got a favourable wind until they made land in England. He proclaimed what he had heard and seen to all he could, and commanded that in each church of Ramsey, which he governed, this aforementioned festival should be solemnly celebrated each year on the 8th of December. He celebrated this same day with true goodwill for the rest of his life. All those who celebrate this day in honour of God and his mother will be granted peace and health by the son of this same virgin, the queen of heaven, Mary, and after this life eternal rest in heaven. He deems it fitting to bestow this, he who lives and rules, one God in three persons, amen.

Like our first miracle of the week, this one is also found in Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend, printed in 1483. In this version the abbot is called Helisius and the story is in the form of a letter from Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109). The text, in modernised orthography, is as follows:

Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury and pastor of England, sendeth greeting and benediction in our Lord perpetual unto the bishops that be under me, and to all them that have remembrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary mother of God.

Right dear brethren, how the conception of the glorious Virgin Mary hath been showed sometime in England, in France, and in other countries by miracles, I shall rehearse to you.

In the time that it pleased to God for to correct the people of England of their evils and sins, and to constrain them to his service, he gave victory in battle to William, the glorious Duke of Normandy, to win and conquer the realm of England. And after that he was king of the land, anon by the help of God, and of his prudence, he reformed the estates and dignities of holy church into better reformation than it had been. To which the devil, enemy unto all good works had envy, and pained him to empesh and let the good works, as well by falseness of his servants as by encumbering of his strangers. For when the Danes heard say that England was subject unto the Normans, anon they made them ready to withstand it. When King William understood this, anon he sent the Abbot of Rumsey, which was named Helsinus, into Denmark for to know the truth. This Abbot after that he had done well and diligently the charge of his commission, and that he was returned a great part of the sea homeward, anon arose a great tempest on the sea, in such wise that the cords and other habiliments of the ship brake. And the masters and governors of the ship, and all they that were therein, lost the hope and trust to escape the peril of this tempest, and all cried devoutly to the glorious Virgin Mary, which is comfort to the discomforted, and hope to the despaired, and recommended themselves in the keeping of God. And anon they saw coming tofore the ship, upon the water, an honourable person in habit of a bishop, which called the said abbot in the ship, and said to him: “Wilt thou escape these perils of the sea, and go home whole and safe into thy country?” And the abbot answered, weeping, that he desired that above all other things. Then said the angel to him: “Know thou that I am sent hither by our Lady for to say to thee that if thou wilt hear me and do thereafter, thou shalt escape this peril of the sea.” The abbot promised that gladly he would obey to that he should say. Then said the angel: “Make covenant to God, and to me, that thou shalt do hallow the feast of the Conception of our Lady, and of her creation, well and solemnly, and that thou shalt go and preach it.” And the abbot demanded in what time this feast should be kept. The angel answered to him, “The eighth day of December.” And the abbot demanded him what office and service he should take for the service in holy church. And the angel answered: “All the office of the nativity of our Lady, save where thou sayest nativity, thou shalt say, conception”, and anon after the angel vanished away and the tempest ceased. And the abbot came home safely into his country with his company, and notified to all them that he might, that he had heard and seen. And, rights dear sirs, if ye will arrive at the port of health, let us hallow devoutly the creation and the conception of the mother of our Lord, by whom we may receive the reward of her son in the glory of paradise celestial.

This week's miracle not only mentions the famous William the Bastard / William the Conqueror, but also mentions Denmark and its king who would presumably have been Sweyn II Estridsson. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)